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Pensioners given the voice to fight against fuel poverty

Resource type: News

Irish News |

Original Source

Age Sector Platform is an Atlantic grantee.

Photo: CAMPAIGN: Bill Carson, Alison McElhinney and Phil Evans at the age sector platform PICTURE: Hugh Russell

FIFTY-ONE per cent of all households experiencing fuel poverty in Northern Ireland are pensioner households.

In Northern Ireland almost one third of the population is over 50.

The number of excess winter deaths in 2007/08 among people aged 65 and over was 550, a 62 per cent increase in the last five years.

ALISON McElhinney came to the rescue after last week’s mention on this page of retirement and the lack of a retirement association for men and women of a certain age.

She is communications and information officer for Age Sector Platform, a relatively new organisation in Northern Ireland although they’ve made their presence felt already.

One of their most successful campaigns, ‘Can’t Heat or Eat’ last November, saw over 400 older people picket Stormont to draw attention to the serious financial situation many senior citizens find themselves in.

Last August pensioner inflation reached a high of 7.4 per cent, the highest rate for pensioners in 17 years.

It will be interesting to hear the figures this year.

The pressure continues on our representatives in the Big House with a postcard campaign – details follow.

Alison explained that ASP is a campaigning and lobbying body representing around 200,000 older people in Northern Ireland.

“The idea is that we facilitate older people so they can campaign and lobby on the things that matter to them,” she says. “It’s all about older people doing it for themselves.

“For instance, in April a rally was held at Belfast City Hall with over 100 older people campaigning for a decent state pension.”

I was in their offices in Howard Street to hear more about the work this organisation undertakes.

They represent the grass-roots, the thousands of older people who belong to clubs and groups in their own areas.

There are 27 groups affiliated to the ASP and each group has representatives on the platform.

Under this bright and vibrant umbrella, these representatives glean information and support to report back to their individual members and so establish a strong unified voice for older people.

And they are shouting from the rooftops.

When NIO minister Paul Goggins launched his consultation document on community safety, there was no section devoted to older people despite the fact that every second person aged 65 and over say they are fearful of being a victim of crime.

Platform members jumped to put this omission right and are waiting for the minister to deliver his strategy dealing specifically with safety of older people.

Since last May representatives from ASP have been working alongside community safety organisations to put forward their first-hand knowledge and a steering group was formed to discuss what should be included in the document, due out shortly.

Bill Carson is chairman of ASP.

He worked in the public sector for much of his life and he’s pleased with progress so far.

“We have an office, staff and an identity,” he says.

“Now we must continue to get ourselves organised.”

He adds with a smile: “We certainly made Stormont shake a little with people from all over Northern Ireland coming to the gates to voice their opinions on heat or eat issue.”

This proved to be fruitful as the executive announced a £150 fuel payment for those on income support and pension credit.

This was only for last winter but the principle has been established and lobbying continues.

Bill reckons it’s a great start for a fairly new organisation getting off the ground.

“We are speaking on behalf of older people here to improve their lot in life,” he says.

“We’re not a political group, we’re non-cultural but we are multi-cultural with members including the Indian Community Centre 50+ club and the Chinese Welfare Association.

“It’s the same for us all you know, when you reach a curtain age you’re told ‘bye bye’.

“You’re Mr Somebody on Friday and Mr Nobody on Monday.

“Many men and women have held senior positions and then they have no position at all.

“We are fortunate to have a wide range of members including people from senior management so we can make use of their experience and their contacts.”

The areas being targeted include social tariffs with NIE; an end to age discrimination; water charges; the Smart Pass to be extended to cover transport to hospitals and health centres; benefits and how to claim – vitally important as over half our senior citizens fail to claim pension credit to which they are entitled.

Alison believes that forms are too complex, that older people are, as they see it, too proud to go with a begging bowl and too private to have anyone delving into their private business.

The ASP can help.

There’s a lot of work to be done and this organisation is aware that it’s laying down the criteria for future generations.

Phil Evans is deputy chair of the Newry and Mourne Senior Citizens’ Consortium and has seen this latest organisation grow from club level through wider forum groups and now to a Northern Ireland-wide platform where all older people are speaking with one voice.

“We’re ready for any challenge, one day debating with politicians, the next giving interviews on television.

“One important aspect of joining these clubs is that it gives many women, who think they don’t have any skills, the confidence to speak up and share their talents.

“Many men and women feel isolated so we want them to come forward and join their local clubs, get involved and then become members of the ASP.”

It looks like the Age Sector Platform is destined to go from strength to strength thanks to a 77-year-old Irish-American billionaire businessman and philanthropist who decided to give away all his money and choose this local organisation to benefit with initial funding for three years. Hopefully Chuck Feeney will continue with his support.

It’s important to a lot of people. More details about ASP and the postcard campaign from Alison at