Pensions cuts 'a life or death issue'
Cutting pensions will be a life and death issue, a leading charity warned politicians today.
Age Action said the most vulnerable needed to be protected in the harshest Budget in the history of the State, especially those who were dependent on it for income, health, transport and housing.
Pensioners are already bracing themselves for a repeat of cancelled Christmas benefit bonuses.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection was told fuel poverty was a major concern and that every step must be taken to ameliorate the impact of cuts on older people.
"This is literally a life or death issue," said Eamon Timmins, Age Action's head of advocacy and communications.
"It should be a matter of national shame that we have up to 2,000 excess winter deaths each year in Ireland - older people who die from cold-related illnesses because they cannot afford to heat their homes.
"It will be even more difficult for older people this year because of the carbon tax and the electricity levy."
He called on Government to keep its promise and compensate low-income households for higher fuel costs.
Fuel vouchers and the loss of the Christmas bonus for social welfare recipients last December were discussed by the action groups and a cross-party group of TDs and senators.
Mr Timmins said pensioners were forced to chose between food and fuel last winter - which was the coldest in 43 years - when the bonus was axed.
Minister for social protection, Eamon O Cuiv, told the committee there was no provision to reintroduce the extra Christmas payment.
While he claimed Government was committed to protecting the most vulnerable, he admitted adjustments would have to be made in his department - but maintained he did not want to cause unnecessary fear to people.
"It's a very difficult job at the moment," Mr O Cuiv said.
"We have to look across at a wide range of people who get a payment from this department. We will look at poverty rates right across the whole spectrum of society."
Dublin-based Fine Gael TD Catherine Byrne revealed a number of pensioners in her constituency could not afford medication since the introduction of prescription charges, while others were forced to cut fruit from their food shop.
"Older people are getting sicker because they can't afford to fill a prescription," she added.
Patricia Conboy, of Older & Bolder, said there was a false perception older people on the contributory and non-contributory State pensions were not at risk of poverty.
She said the funding of the pension cost €4.3bn in 2008, while expenditure on tax reliefs on private pensions was €3bn.
"This State expenditure gives the greatest level of support to those with highest levels of income," she said.
"In terms of both equity and efficiency, the focus in the Budget should be on reform of tax reliefs rather than cuts to the State Pension which benefits a wider sector of the population."