20/09/2011

Gas Price Hike 'Fuels Winter Woes'

The gas supplier, Firmus Energy has ended its previously announced summer price freeze and is set to increase tariffs by over 35% from 1 October - fuelling fears over 'fuel poverty' among the most needy.

It has around 8,500 customers in the greater Belfast area - compared to competitor, Phoenix Gas - that has more than 130,000.

Two weeks after the firm raised tariffs for its 'Ten Towns' - those outside Belfast - by 28.4%, the Acting General Manager Michael Scott said the firm was however also increasing its discount over rival supplier Phoenix from 7.5 to 10%.

The firm also announced the start of switching for customers using pay as you go technology who make up around half of the consumer base in the province.

The news came just a day after the DUP called upon the Government at Westminster to maintain the winter fuel payment at its current level to combat the problem of fuel poverty amongst older people.

The call came in a debate within the Northern Ireland Assembly proposed by North Antrim DUP MLAs David McIlveen and Paul Frew.

Mr McIlveen said: "We ought to view the Winter Fuel Payment as sending out a message about how we treat our older population.

"We must not forget, this is a generation of people who have built up our country through exceptionally difficult and challenging circumstances."

He also said that the issue "is a matter of life and death for some".

The DUP claimed that, in 2009-10 there were 950 deaths during the winter - over and above the usual annual average.

These are what statisticians call 'excess winter deaths' and 80% of these were 60-years-old and over.

"The impact "of the coalition Government's decision to cut winter fuel payments has a direct impact upon figures such as those," said a party statement.

The SDLP Social Development spokesperson Mark H Durkan has also called for proper resources to be put in place to ensure that winter fuel payments are raised to reflect the rise in the cost of fuel.

Yesterday, he said that the payments must be opened to other groups thus alleviating the burden on our health service.

The Foyle MLA was speaking during a debate on fuel poverty in the Assembly on Monday.

He said: "We must do all we can to protect winter fuel payments - this assembly, as a functioning institution must do all it can to take proactive steps to tackle fuel poverty."

Body-blow

The Alliance Social Development Spokesperson Judith Cochrane has said the announcement is another bodyblow as regards fuel poverty following other announcements on energy prices.

Judith Cochrane MLA said: "This news is yet another body-blow to households. The problem of fuel poverty is being exacerbated with every announcement of this nature.

"This news makes it all the more vital that winter fuel payments are protected. People should never have to face the question of whether to heat or eat.

"Tackling fuel poverty is one of the biggest challenges facing politicians and we must meet this challenge head on.

"It is crucial that we work to provide further access to insulation schemes to help households keep bills as low as possible. It is also vital that we work to create more energy through renewable sources. Green energy and a Green New Deal are crucial to addressing fuel poverty," she said this morning.

(BMcC/GK)

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