By Sarah Mair
LAST WINTER, over 500 elderly people in Northern Ireland died of the cold because they could not afford to heat their homes. This shocking statistic, which the utility companies want to hide from people, shows the real consequences of rising energy bills.
Bill Carson, of the Age Sector Platform, commented that these figures, representing a 60% increase in winter deaths over the past five years and were “appalling in a modern society”. An even more sickening fact is that this winter energy prices are even higher than last year’s. Taking into account a small price cut in January, NIE electricity prices are 37% higher than last winter, while Phoenix Gas prices are 22% higher.
With rising unemployment and cuts in wages the order of the day, thousands more households will be forced to choose between food and fuel this winter – a choice that nobody should be forced to make. And with an average weekly increase of £40 in food & living costs, some are feeling the effects more than most. The most vulnerable groups in society – the elderly, low-income households and single parent families – will be particularly hit hard.
In 2007, NIE made a staggering record profit of over £100 million. Their shareholders revelled in a £40 million payout, while the electricity tolls were increased in 2008 by 50% to further flesh out their bounty. Phoenix Gas, suppliers of gas to many households in the North, jacked up their costs to around £130 more than this time last year. Northern Ireland has the highest fuel poverty numbers in the UK, meaning that a huge number of residents spend at least 10% of their income to heat their homes. Elderly people, who rely mainly on fixed incomes and are amongst the most at risk in society, are being forced to seek asylum from the cold in retail centres, or falling into rising debt as they struggle to survive the winters temperatures.
Scandalously, the Utility ‘Regulator’ Iain Osbourne thinks gas and electricity prices are justified. He has rubber-stamped price increases on the utility companies’ behalf over the past year. But it is the politicians in the Stormont Executive who are to blame for allowing the Regulator authorise these price hikes in the first place. If the parties in the Executive were really concerned about fuel poverty, they would at least instruct the Regulator to completely reverse all the increases. The reason they haven’t even done this is that they are more concerned for the private companies’ profiteering than they are for ordinary people who cannot afford to keep warm.
The shocking growth in numbers of people dying from the cold is a symptom of the privatisation of utility companies. Profit is all NIE and Phoenix Gas care about. The only way prices can be controlled and the right to a warm home be guaranteed for all is by taking these companies back into public ownership and run democratically by working class people.
That is why the Socialist Party has helped launch the Nationalise the Utilities Campaign, which has been campaigning to take these companies into public ownership, and run as they should be: for public need, not corporate greed. Full democratic nationalisation is needed NOW to end the agonising choice faced by so many homes and families between heating and eating.
PROTEST – END THE ENERGY PRICE RIP-OFF
Outside Utlity Regulator, Queens House, Queen St, Belfast, 1pm Thursday 5 March
Called by Nationalise the Utilities Campaign – Call 90311778 for more info