“WE’RE here to help.” That’s the message of reassurance from the regional manager of South Munster MABS, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, to anyone in Cork struggling with their finances amid the spiralling cost of living.
Ursula Collins was speaking to The Echo following the Taoiseach’s warning this week that Irish consumers face a “new era” of high energy prices because of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
MABS, which is funded and supported by the Citizens Information Board (CIB), is reporting an increase in presentations with people seeking financial advice and the organisation expects a further uptick in calls with more energy price hikes on the horizon.
“I think certainly, given the context of the Taoiseach’s comments, I think it is prudent of him to be warning the public that we are in very volatile time and the impact of that on utility bills is going to be felt by everyone,” Ms Collins said. “It’s definitely a concern from MABS’ perspective in terms of the current environment.
“As of the end of March, we were seeing about a 10% increase in people coming to us.
“The primary areas for the last 12 months have been around utilities and difficulties meeting rent.
“We’ve also seen a significant increase in people who are working and trying very hard to make ends meet but just with these increases are finding it impossible,” she continued.
Ms Collins also noted that the Electric Ireland Covid-19 Hardship fund in partnership with MABS and St Vincent de Paul, which was set by Electric Ireland last year to help their customers who were struggling to meet payments for their energy bills, has now been depleted.
“I think another significant factor in the external environment that’s going to impact on people is the Electric Ireland fund which we would have secured some €52,000 from last year for people in the Cork and Kerry area, that’s now depleted.
“The Electric Ireland fund was probably the biggest fund to alleviate pressure on people due to high utility bills and they have expended €2m. They are now closing the fund as of this week, as of June 3,” she said.
“And the other funds that are operating only really give quite negligible amounts, maybe €50, and we would consistently see people presenting with bills of €1,000 or more that they cannot meet.”
Ms Collins said while people’s financial burdens may be lessened somewhat over the summer months with a likely reduction in heating and lighting usage, costs generally ramp up again in the autumn for people with the cooler weather creeping in and back to school costs for families.
“We would say that one of the things Government could do, they have done it in the UK, is to instruct all utility companies to give all their customers the best rate that they have available,” Ms Collins said, speaking in relation to measures MABS would like to see the Government take. Ms Collins also encouraged anyone with concerns about their finances to contact MABS.
“We would encourage people to just pick up the phone. We’re completely free and confidential and we’re here to help,” she said.
“The first thing we would do is look at your income, look at maximising your income, making sure you’re getting any tax breaks you should be getting. If you’re on welfare, making sure that you’re getting anything that you’re entitled to.
“If you’ve got debts you’re concerned about, we can assist you by consolidation of those debts and we can talk to be it the credit union or the banks – we can act as an intermediary to facilitate getting a payment plan in place that suits you and that’s manageable and take the stress out of it.”