Foreword


Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, a powerful force for good, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. 

In 2022, as we adapt to living with Covid-19, and face the highest inflation rate for 30 years, consumers are experiencing an evolving range of challenges. The vast majority of consumers in Northern Ireland are worried about energy, fuel and food price increases, and nearly one in ten reported skipping a meal due to higher food prices in late 2021. Things are only expected to get tougher for households in the months ahead. At Which?, a key part of our work is to explore and understand the issues that people are facing in their daily lives, so we can support them, and find policy solutions to today’s biggest consumer problems. 

We know that consumer experiences vary across the UK, particularly in the devolved nations where challenges and policy priorities are often different. Policymakers need tailored and specific insight to meet the needs of their constituents. In this report, we explore the experiences of consumers in Northern Ireland in detail, offering cutting edge insight into the challenges they face today and the shifts they are making towards greater digitalisation and sustainable consumption.

Executive Summary


The start of 2022 has marked a transition in which economic concerns are replacing Covid-19 health worries as the predominant issue for many people in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Despite the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of Covid-19, the reduced severity of infections means that focus is switching to a new set of challenges and our report this year starts by focussing on two immediate crises. 

The first is a cost of living crisis as higher prices, especially for energy, are squeezing households. Inflation rose sharply by the end of 2021 and the annual rate reached 6.2% in February, the highest it has been since March 1992. The Bank of England expects inflation to increase further to around 8% this spring and it may rise even higher later in the year as a result of added economic pressures caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Consumer finances and the ‘cost of living’ crisis


Rising prices and the resulting cost of living crisis are clearly reflected in the concerns of consumers in Northern Ireland. Energy price rises have attracted most attention and an overwhelming majority of consumers in Northern Ireland (85%) said they were worried about these, a huge increase on the 52% who were worried last year. Concern about fuel and food prices is also very high (84% and 79% respectively), again a major increase on the figures recorded last year. Consumers in Northern Ireland were significantly more likely to be worried about fuel prices compared to the other devolved nations.

Concern about housing costs has also increased since last year (from 48% to 58%), although to a lesser extent than energy, fuel and food prices. However, renters are much more likely to be worried about housing costs than homeowners. Three quarters (71%) of renters in our sample of consumers in Northern Ireland were worried about this, compared to 54% of homeowners.

 

The majority of consumers are already being affected by higher prices. Energy prices are a particular problem in Northern Ireland as seven in ten (70%) consumers said they had already experienced increased energy prices in December 2021, compared to a maximum of 55% in the other nations of the UK. Two-thirds (65%) of consumers in Northern Ireland told us they had noticed higher food prices, and nearly half (47%) had struggled to find the food they wanted in supermarkets (slightly higher than the 42% in England and significantly higher than in Wales). 

 

 

Many of those who had experienced higher food prices also reported adapting their behaviour by buying cheaper alternative products (48%) or cheaper brands (48%), shopping around in other stores or online shops (44%), or buying extra items when on promotion (41%). Nearly one in ten (9%) of consumers in Northern Ireland said they had gone so far as to skip meals or prioritise meals for other family members (8%). 

To offset the impact of higher energy prices, nearly half (46%) of people said that they had put the heating on less, whilst 42% had reduced their use of lights and appliances around the home. A fifth (21%) had shopped around for a better deal, significantly more than in the other nations.

The fact that more consumers in Northern Ireland experienced increased energy prices at the end of last year compared to the rest of the UK is no doubt a consequence of differences in household energy markets between Northern Ireland and the other nations. The greater reliance on heating oil, used by roughly two thirds of households, means that many consumers experienced an increase in home energy prices during Autumn. The average price for 300L of heating oil rose by 19.8%, from £143.24 at the end of August 2021 to £171.59 at the end of November. Domestic gas prices also increased more steeply towards the end of 2021 in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, while those autumn price rises were substantial at the time, they now seem relatively mild as the war in Ukraine is forcing up energy prices further. Heating oil prices have soared and there have been further increases in the gas prices of SSE Airtricity and Firmus.

While these price increases will cause financial hardship for many households, some will be worse affected by the increase in inflation. Higher rates of inflation for essential products are particularly problematic for those on lower income households because they typically have tighter budgets and it is harder to avoid price rises on essential products.

 

Our analysis of inflation rates by household income at a UK level estimates that the share of household expenditure that is spent just on food and energy will increase by 3.1 percentage points for those on the lowest incomes compared, but by just 1.4 percentage point increase for the highest income quintile.

This means that for households with the lowest 20% of incomes, averaging just £14,600 per year, 27.8% of their spending will be on just food, gas and electricity by April 2022. For those in the next lowest 20%, with average incomes of £24,000, this will be 24.5% of their spending. By comparison, for the 20% of households with the highest incomes, an average of £81,000 per year, this is estimated to be just 14.4%.

These forecasts are a stark warning of the potential financial difficulty to come for many households, particularly those who are already worse off. The overall proportion who reported having missed or defaulted on at least one mortgage, rent, loan, credit card or bill payment in Northern Ireland was 4.4% in December. However, this rose to 10.7% for households in the sample on lower incomes (up to £21,000).

With financial pressures set to increase during 2022 as prices increase further, households’ ability to manage will depend on whether they have a financial buffer to cope with increased bills. However, our research suggests that many households have low levels of financial resilience. Almost a third of people (30%) in Northern Ireland said they would not be able to pay an unexpected bill of £300 either through their regular income or by dipping into savings. Most of these would either borrow money or cut back on essentials to cover such a bill, but 5% said they would not be able to pay it at all and this rose to 15% of those with a household income of £21,000 or less. 

It is clear that many households are going to need substantial support in the coming months. The one-off £200 payment to benefit recipients through the Energy Payment Support Scheme and the availability of the Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme will be hugely important for many vulnerable households. However, with prices expected to rise further, people are likely to need further support this year and companies must make sure they are ready to support customers in financial distress and treat their customers fairly. As set out in the rest of this report, consumers also need to know that they can rely on strong consumer and competition protections so that they are not exploited or ripped off at a time when they can least afford it.

85% of consumers in Northern Ireland are worried about energy prices, 84% are worried about fuel prices and 79% are worried about food prices.
85%
of consumers are worried about energy prices

A fraud epidemic


The cost of living crisis has grabbed headlines in recent weeks, but a second crisis has developed over the course of the pandemic which is causing severe harm for consumers. There has been a sharp rise in the incidence of fraud and scams with fraudsters taking advantage of consumers’ changing habits. 

Most of these offences take place online and the substantial increase in fraud during the pandemic has been enabled by changes in consumer behaviour, such as increased online shopping, while digital technologies such as social media platforms have allowed fraudsters to target potential victims en masse through fake advertising. The number of fraud incidents in Northern Ireland recorded by Action Fraud increased sharply by 38% in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20. This is likely due in part to an increase in online activities among consumers during the pandemic. The single most commonly recorded type of fraud relates to online shopping and auctions, which account for 25% of all incidents recorded by Action Fraud in Northern Ireland in 2020-21.

Although fraud is a financial crime, the impact goes beyond the financial losses and into psychological harm. Victims of scams commonly report feelings of irritation, anger or sadness, and some also experience impacts on their mental or physical health. Which? is concerned that the full scale of this psychological harm has long been underestimated and so we recently explored the relationship between being a victim of fraud and reduced wellbeing. Using HM Treasury valuation techniques and data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, we estimate the loss in wellbeing from being a victim of a fraud is worth £2,509 on average.

 

The prevalence of fraudulent activity also has an effect beyond those who become victims. It causes worry and anxiety, and forces people to take action to keep themselves safe. Three quarters (78%) of consumers in Northern Ireland told us they have seen or been targeted by a scam. People were most likely to believe they had been targeted by fraudsters via email (58%), texts (57%) and calls (46%). Consumers in Northern Ireland were more likely to report having been targeted by scam texts compared to those in Scotland and Wales.  

Approximately one in six people say that they have seen or been targeted by a scam on social media or at a shopping website. Although Which? has found widespread evidence of scams in these contexts, they can be harder for consumers to detect than through direct communications as people may be less alert to fraudulent content. For example, our research has shown that Facebook users have limited awareness about the risk of scams on social media and, when tested, they mistakenly assume they can spot fraudulent content.

The likelihood of having seen a scam was fairly consistent across different demographic groups in our sample, but the medium through which consumers in Northern Ireland were targeted did differ across age groups. Younger consumers (18-34 year-olds) are more likely to see scams on social media or via text than those aged 65+.

In addition to the various channels that scams may come through, there is also an enormous breadth of types of scams such as bank and credit account fraud, fake products, investment scams, and romance scams. With so many ways and means for scammers to operate, consumers rely on a wide range of organisations to take action to help protect them.

 

We asked consumers in Northern Ireland how satisfied they are that these different entities act to protect them from scams. The majority of consumers in Northern Ireland are satisfied that banks protect consumers from scams, maybe reflecting that many banks have acted visibly against fraud by proactively issuing warnings to customers or implementing new measures, such as confirmation of payee, to prevent fraudulent transactions. However, 14% still don’t think that banks are doing enough, and there has been criticism that banks have been inconsistent in reimbursing fraud victims, resulting in the Financial Ombudsman finding in the favour of customers in a large majority of fraud complaints.

Satisfaction with the government is low, with just 24% of people in Northern Ireland being satisfied that they do enough to protect consumers from scams. However, the greatest levels of dissatisfaction are reserved for online platforms such as social media and search engines. Just 21% of people are satisfied with their actions to protect consumers and 43% are dissatisfied. These findings were consistent across all the UK nations.

With the incidence of frauds surging during the pandemic, consumers in Northern Ireland evidently believe that they should receive better protection against scams and this needs to come from a number of organisations.  

An essential action is to make the online world safer. Which? has been calling on the UK government to amend the Online Safety Bill to give online platforms a legal duty to protect consumers from fraud and for paid-for advertising to be included in the scope of the Bill. These adverts are a critical way consumers are targeted by fraudsters online and we therefore strongly welcome the government’s decision to amend the Bill

Which? is also calling on the government to follow through with its commitment to legislate to make reimbursement mandatory for victims of Authorised Push Payment (APP) fraud to put an end to the unfair and inconsistent treatment many victims face when trying to get their money back after they are targeted by fraudsters. Meanwhile, the Payment Systems Regulator should act swiftly to direct individual banks to publish data that demonstrates how well they are dealing with APP fraud and treating their customers.

The telecoms industry must also do more to protect consumers from scams that take place via their platforms and networks, by preventing fraudsters from exploiting weaknesses in their systems to target consumers. We support the industry’s recent steps to implement SMS spam filters to block scam text messages, but steps should also include preparing to introduce a call authentication system to prevent and reduce illegally spoofed phone calls. Which? is also calling on businesses to sign up to its SMS best practice guide, which will help businesses to create a distinction between their own communications and those that are fraudulent and thereby help prevent their customers falling victim to fraud.

Digital life and broadband connectivity


Year on year, more of our lives are conducted online and the pandemic hastened the speed at which we’ve adopted online behaviours. Last year, we reported an increase in the use of home broadband for various activities during the pandemic, including shopping, banking, working from home and communicating with friends and family. Our research indicates that these habits have stuck even as Covid-19 restrictions have eased. 

Three-fifths of consumers in Northern Ireland told us they often use their home broadband for administrative activities, such as banking, and the same proportion for communication with friends and family. Only 3% said they never use their home broadband for online shopping. Frequency of usage did not change significantly in any category compared to last year.

As internet usage in Northern Ireland spreads to more and more areas of daily life, consumers also have many devices connected to their home broadband. Predictably, a majority reported having mobile phones and computers connected to their home broadband. But the majority also had other connected devices, with 67% having a smart TV, 63% a tablet or ereader, and 39% a speaker or virtual assistant. Ownership of connected devices varied across age groups. Though mobile phones were more commonly owned by younger consumers, middle aged and older consumers were more likely to have a tablet or e-reader and the 45-54 age group were most likely to have a smart TV.

 

It is clear that consumers in Northern Ireland rely on their home broadband for various essential tasks, and this reliance is likely to increase further in the future as more connected devices are adopted by households. As such, it is increasingly crucial that consumers have access to good broadband, with sufficient bandwidth and speed to complete this broad range of activities. 

Which? has analysed Ofcom data to reveal the performance of broadband within the devolved nations of the UK. Our analysis shows that the average fixed broadband download speed in Northern Ireland is 82.7 megabits per second (Mbps) (calculated as the median fixed broadband download speed across all Census output areas in each nation). This is similar, albeit a little slower than in England (88.5), and faster than in Scotland (73.7 Mbps) and Wales (55.9 Mbps). Northern Ireland has a greater proportion (8%) of output areas in the lowest speed category compared to England (3%), which suggests that although speeds compare favourably overall some places in Northern Ireland are lagging behind.

In fact, deeper analysis of the data shows clearly that performance is not equal across areas within Northern Ireland. There are stark differences between the largest urban areas and the rest of the country. On average, download line speeds in Belfast are almost 75 per cent higher than those in the rest of Northern Ireland. Almost one third of the output areas outside Belfast receive fixed broadband at between 32 and 64 MBps, but very few households within the city have broadband this slow.

Differences in performance speeds represent both differences in network capability and in household demand for faster broadband, so an area with relatively low average speeds may have less access to superfast broadband, more households buying broadband packages below the available speed, or both. 

The UK government has committed to enhance digital connectivity so that gigabit-capable broadband will be available nationwide by 2030. It is also forecasting that at least 90% of premises in Northern Ireland will be covered by gigabit-capable broadband by 2025. 

While the 2030 commitment is welcome, Which? is calling on the UK government to give people living in the hardest to reach areas greater clarity about when they can expect to receive improvements in their connectivity.

Such clarity would also help inform the much needed programme of work to tackle the barriers to consumer adoption of gigabit-capable broadband. The Gigabit Take-up Advisory Group (GigaTAG), chaired by Which?, identified three broad categories of barriers to consumer adoption of gigabit-capable broadband. These are a lack of awareness, limited perceived benefit, and practical barriers to adoption such as restricted opportunities to switch and affordability for some groups.

The GigaTAG made a number of recommendations for actions to tackle the barriers to adoption. To improve awareness and understanding of gigabit-capable broadband it recommended that Ofcom and broadband providers work together to develop common terminology to describe broadband services and a core set of use cases and benefits to be used by providers. Further, Building Digital UK should develop and deliver a ‘gigabit toolkit’ for use by local authorities, and this should include information on the benefits of adoption and resources to help with information campaigns.

Sustainable consumption


The past year has been a key period in the move to tackle climate change. The UK was the host of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow. The UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) made it clear in its most recent risk assessment that adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk. Far more ambitious action is therefore needed if the government is to mitigate the impacts and achieve its commitments to reach net zero by 2050 and this action will need to include widespread behaviour change by consumers. 

Climate change is a concern for most people in Northern Ireland. Just under two-fifths (36%) told us they are very concerned about climate change and another 42% said they are somewhat concerned. This was very similar across the nations, though consumers in Northern Ireland were slightly less likely to be very concerned. Just 6% of people in Northern Ireland are not at all concerned. This high level of concern was consistent across age groups. Our data also shows that most people in Northern Ireland believe they have some personal responsibility to reduce their own carbon footprint - 83% feel they are very or somewhat responsible.

Further, the proportion of consumers in Northern Ireland who reported having made a sustainable purchasing decision has increased compared to last year. Those concerned about climate change were most likely to have made a decision influenced by environmental concerns when buying electrical appliances (43%) and this is a five percentage point increase on last year. There were also large increases this year in the proportions of people who told us they had made a sustainable choice around clothing and energy. 

Choosing more sustainably can be harder for purchases like vehicles and holidays where it might mean paying more or making lifestyle compromises. However, even for these categories a greater proportion of consumers in Northern Ireland reported making sustainable choices. 

 

 

The increase in the proportion of people making a more sustainable vehicle purchasing decision is particularly welcome since one of the key goals for reducing carbon consumption through consumer behaviour is to increase the use of electric vehicles (EVs), as opposed to petrol or diesel which will be banned from sale after 2030. 

Achieving this goal will require a rapid change in purchasing habits, since only 1% of car owners in Northern Ireland told us they already own an electric vehicle. This rate is consistent with the rest of the UK, with the only exceptions being higher uptake in large urban centres (particularly London). 

Although current ownership is low, two-fifths (43%) of car owners in Northern Ireland expressed an intention to buy an electric vehicle in the future. However, that still leaves a majority unconvinced as 34% said they were not intending to buy an EV, and 22% were unsure.

To empower consumers to purchase EVs, drivers must have confidence that the cars and the charging infrastructure will be able to meet their needs. Our research highlights the range of barriers that consumers in Northern Ireland face in the impending switch to EVs. 

Access to charge points, either at home or when out and about is the most commonly cited barrier to adoption with 50% of car owners in Northern Ireland identifying this. Range anxiety is also a large concern, with 45% of car owners saying that range on a single charge was a problem. To some extent, concerns about range may be overcome with better information. Which? testing data shows that most of the latest EVs have a range of at least 200 miles without recharging, which is likely to be sufficient for most car users most of the time if they have access to a charge point at the end of their journey. 

Upfront cost is clearly a large barrier to adoption, with a third (35%) of car owners saying this, but the next two most commonly cited barriers to EV adoption again relate to charging, with people being concerned about access to charge points and the time it takes to charge a vehicle. It is therefore clear that consumers will not feel reassured to switch to EVs until these concerns about charging are allayed.

The number of public-access charge points that will be needed will vary between different areas, depending on factors including the availability of off-street parking (and therefore the possibility for home charging) and population density. Nevertheless, the way the roll-out is developing means that drivers living and travelling in some parts of the UK are likely to struggle to access the infrastructure they need. There are large differences across the UK nations, with Northern Ireland lagging behind the other devolved nations. While in Scotland there are 52 public charge points per one hundred thousand people, this compares with 43 in England, 33 in Wales, and just 18 in Northern Ireland.

To give consumers the confidence to switch to an EV, and ensure that the infrastructure they need is in place to support them when they do, the roll-out of charge points in Northern Ireland will need to rapidly accelerate. We look forward to the forthcoming EV Charging Infrastructure Plan from the Northern Ireland Executive, which must set out a strategy to urgently expand the number of public charge points, including rapid chargers, in coordination with plans being developed by the UK Government. 

It is also vital that drivers are able to rely on charge points being in good working order, but research with current EV owners in Northern Ireland suggests this is not the case. The UK Government should move forward with plans to require charge point operators to meet a 99% availability standard as an average across its fleet of charge points, and provide a 24/7 helpline for consumers, to build consumer confidence in the public network.

Finally, the consumer experience of the public charging network should be as simple and easy as possible, and the Northern Ireland Executive should work with the UK and other devolved governments to address key issues so that drivers don’t face unnecessary frustrations and inconvenience.

Methodology


Which? Quantitative surveys

Yonder, on behalf of Which? conducted a survey of consumers in each of the UK nations from 30th November-8th December 2021. A minimum of 1,000 respondents were recruited for each of the four nations, with quotas and response weighting used to obtain a nationally representative sample for each nation according to their known age and gender profiles. The survey covered consumer sentiment and financial wellbeing, broadband, scams and sustainability.  Sample sizes and question text are noted below the relevant charts throughout the reports. Data from this survey is presented throughout the report, though other data sources are also included, with a different survey used for parts of the sustainability section.