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Saturday 21 September 2019

Blackouts on way for households as fuel hikes will put families 'out in the cold' - SVP

Fr Peter McVerry criticised the narrative around homelessness
Fr Peter McVerry criticised the narrative around homelessness

Conor McCrave and Fiona Dillon

A round of fuel hikes during the winter months is going to force low-income families to forego heat and light, the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) has warned.

The charity, which spent more than €4m helping households with fuel and utility bills last year, said families faced a blackout if planned price hikes went ahead.

The Irish Independent has previously revealed that householders will face further energy price hikes in the new year.

Some providers including SSE Airtricity and Pinergy have already increased their rates from this month and some households now face an increase of up to 6pc on their gas and electricity bills.

SVP said it had seen a surge in first-time callers seeking help along with concerns that many working families were teetering on the verge of homelessness.

Now a further increase in the cost of gas and electricity will have a devastating effect on families already struggling to make ends meet, according to the head of social justice at SVP, Caroline Fahey.

"For many thousands of people that SVP supports, opening a utility bill is a major source of stress and these price increases are really going to hit struggling households hard. So many are already finding it difficult to make ends meet," she said.

The charity has also raised concerns about pay-as-you-go (PAYG) hardship meters, which it says means some consumers pay more for their electricity as they can't take advantage of online discounts.

As households can decide not to top up and sacrifice having access to heat and electricity, many will be left out in the cold following the latest round of price hikes.

"The uptake in PAYG hardship meters has significantly reduced the number of disconnections among customers in financial difficulty, which is obviously positive.

"But PAYG customers are often subject to a 'poverty premium' as they cannot avail of online offers or discounts for using direct debit or online billing," she said.

"Another downside is that when households have greater control over their energy spend, they are more likely to go without. The reality is that because a €20 top-up is going to go a lot less further than this time last year, self-disconnections are likely to increase.

"We believe the State should play a stronger role in determining housing standards, including energy efficiency and regulating energy prices to support affordability."

Elsewhere, the Peter McVerry Trust has hit out at Government and State officials who made an "apparently deliberate attempt" to change the narrative around homelessness.

Fr McVerry said in the launch of the charity's annual report for 2017, that attempts were made to try to minimise the problem of homelessness by declaring that "our housing crisis is completely normal".

Minister of State for Housing Damien English, who officially opened 13 new social housing units run by the charity yesterday, was asked to respond to the comments made by Fr McVerry.

"It's true to say that the number of people who are homeless is very high and no one is denying that, and that is why we are here today providing more accommodation, providing more homes," he said.

Mr English said that Fr McVerry correctly highlighted the problem got worse during 2017.

But he pointed out that a national plan for homelessness was in place.

"We have never tried to change the narrative," he said.

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