F O’Toole on Minister Rabitte and Fuel Poverty
How Low can they GO?
In the recent Budget the period for which the poor and the old receive free gas and electricity units was reduced by six weeks. During the warmer summer months, Minister for “Social Protection”, Joan Burton(LabourParty Deputy Leader) announced cuts to the home benefits package for pensioners and social welfare beneficiaries. The allocations of electricity units and gas units so important for home heating were reduced by between 20% and 25% and the smokeless fuel allowance payable in Dublin was abolished. These are means tested payments which means that they are only paid to people at risk. AGE ACTION IRELAND has stated “Research on fuel poverty and older people by the Dublin Institute of Technology and the Institute of Public Health shows that during the winter of 2006/7 there were 1,281 excess winter deaths*. Of these, the vast majority were older people (1,216 were aged over-65).
The piece of research referred to by Age Action was publicly launched last week by Minister Rabitte (Labour Party) In Irish Times 20/12/2011, columnist Fintan O’Toole analyses Minister Rabitte’s launching address-Paddy Healy
RABITTE OUT IN THE COLD ON ELDERLY FUEL CUTS
Irish Times Tue, Dec 20, 2011
Pat Rabbitte is wrong that the fuel crisis is not as bad as reported. In fact, it is likely to be much worse, writes FINTAN O’TOOLE
OSCAR WILDE said he could resist everything except temptation. We, his compatriots, can imagine everything except reality. Collectively, we find it hard to believe what we see around us.
One of the things that’s easiest to spot in public spaces is old people sheltering from the cold. You see them in Ikea, sitting in the restaurant half the day over cheap cups of tea. You see them in shopping centres, where benches are being removed, not to stop teenagers from congregating, but to prevent the clusters of elderly heat-seekers. You see them in public libraries. You even see them on trains, riding up and down the lines with their free travel passes. And these, of course, are the luckier ones, the ones who are mobile and healthy enough to be able to get out of the house. But seeing is not believing.
Last week, there was a strange vignette of official incredulity. Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte launched a report by the Institute of Public Health on fuel poverty among the elderly. It is a very serious, scholarly piece of work, conducted on an all-island basis by a team of researchers from the Republic, Northern Ireland and Britain, led by Prof Patrick Goodman of Dublin Institute of Technology.
One of its findings is that 51.1 per cent of older people surveyed said they “went without necessities such as food and clothing in order to pay for heat over the winter period”.
This is not a comfortable finding for a Minister in the week after a budget that has cut the fuel allowance period by six weeks. How did Pat Rabbitte deal with it? By claiming it did not exist. According to The Irish Times report of the launch, “he said the claim that half of older people were forgoing essentials to heat their home had been published in a press release but was not in the report. He added that no politician or social worker would believe that it was true.”
In fact, the finding appears twice in the report: on page 12 and on page 60. When this was pointed out to the Minister, he stood by his position that it could not be so, pointing out that the survey was “not a representative sample of older people”.
This is true, but probably not in the sense that Rabbitte meant. No one claims the survey is representative, in the sense that, for example, an opinion poll using weighted demographical sampling might be. Its aim is somewhat different: not to tick boxes, but to get a good sense of the actual experience of older people during last winter.
The sampling method, using bodies such as Age Action, Energy Action, the Rural Transport Network and Dublin City Council’s sheltered housing liaison officers to distribute the surveys, probably does distort the results somewhat. But – and here’s the real point – it distorts them by understating the problem. People who are isolated from networks and services were excluded. People who have problems with literacy or blindness couldn’t complete the written survey. Such people are more, not less, likely to suffer from deprivation.
There is a further factor at work: the “mustn’t grumble” ethic of the elderly. Older people don’t like to complain. In the same survey, 90 per cent of the respondents listed their health status as fair to very good, even though 75 per cent had a long-term illness. They are an almost comically stoical bunch.
One respondent with both Parkinson’s disease and arthritis gave her health status as “good” and explained that “as long as I am mobile and above ground I tend not to panic or bitch”.
How probable is it that these same people are wildly exaggerating when they say they sacrifice food or clothing for heat?
And yet, the official view from the Minister is that it simply could not be true that anything like half of older people are doing without other necessities in order to heat their homes. “No politician or social worker would believe that it was true.”
That no politician, moving from heated offices to heated cars, would believe it is understandable. But I’m not sure the incredulity would extend to anyone who works with Age Action, Friends of the Elderly, St Vincent de Paul or social services. The only sense in which it is not “true” is that its reality is impermissibly awkward.
This vignette is eloquent in its own way as an example of the cognitive dissonance of officialdom. Cognitive dissonance is the condition that affects people when their belief system comes into conflict with reality. They close the gap, not by altering their belief systems, but by redefining reality.
In this case, Pat Rabbitte’s belief system (social justice) is in radical conflict with most of what he’s doing in Government. So he’s redefining reality: it is simply not possible that the Government is cutting fuel allowances for people who are already suffering deprivation in order to stay warm.
Otherwise, he would have to face the unacceptable reality that current policies are making Ireland a cold house for basic decency.
© 2011 The Irish Times