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MPs demand fuel poverty answers

MPs from across the political spectrum have been demanding answers from the government on fuel poverty in recent weeks.

The answers have shown how the government is committed to taking steps to reduce fuel poverty – but that more needs to be done.

Rebecca Long-Bailey (Lab, Salford & Eccles) asked the Department for Health whether people in cold homes and in fuel poverty will be at higher risk from the worst effects covid-19 in winter 2020-21.

The Minister, Jo Churchill, replied:

As the United Kingdom heads into its first winter with COVID-19, the impacts of the concurrent risks of COVID-19, cold weather and fuel poverty are not yet known. In light of the concurrent risk of COVID-19, Public Health England will be reviewing the Cold Weather Plan for England and related resources ahead of this winter.

Ms Long-Bailey put further pressure on, asking what assessment the Government has made of the effect of fuel poverty on trends in the level of respiratory problems. The government referred to an Atlas of Variation of trends which will require further examination by fuel poverty experts.

Emma Lewell-Buck (Labour, South Shields) asked if the government would look at proposals suggested by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition to ensure debt relief for those in extreme fuel poverty. Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng replied:

The Department is working with Ofgem to assess the level and impact of domestic consumer energy debt this winter and we will continue to review options to support energy customers in debt, including those in or at risk of fuel poverty.

David Linden (SNP, Glasgow East) took the issue further, asking the Prime Minister:

With 2.4 million households in the UK facing fuel poverty this winter, a figure that will only be exacerbated by the pandemic, will the Prime Minister consider introducing a one-off covid-19 winter fuel payment to every household at risk.

The Prime Minster replied that the government “will consider all sorts of measures to alleviate poverty and suffering in the months ahead.”

William Wragg (Conservative, Hazel Grove) asked about support for energy efficiency, which saw Treasury Minister Kemi Badenoch reply:

The Government recognise the importance of energy efficiency in achieving our climate change objectives and tackling fuel poverty. That is why in July my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced over £2 billion of new funding to upgrade homes through the green homes grant scheme. In addition, we have a range of policies in place to support home energy efficiency improvements.

Nadia Whittome (Labour, Nottingham East) raised the subject of fuel poverty among those in rented accommodation. Prompting Minister Kwarteng to respond:

We intend to consult on strengthening the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards in due course, in line with our Clean Growth Strategy aspiration for privately rented properties to reach EPC Band C by 2030 where practical, affordable and cost-effective. Landlords will also be eligible for subsidised energy efficiency measures through the Green Homes Grant scheme this autumn.

Martyn Day (SNP, Linlithgow & Falkirk East) has demanded the government make an annual statement to the House of Commons on fuel poverty. The issue of the Fuel Poverty Strategy for England has also been raised and while it has been over 55 weeks since the consultation on the strategy closed, the Minister is still hopeful it will be published. In response to Sarah Olney (Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park), the Minister said:

We intend to publish an updated Fuel Poverty Strategy for England in due course which will provide further information on the range of schemes available to support low income and vulnerable households in improving the energy efficiency of their homes.

Luke Evans (Conservative, Bosworth), Colleen Fletcher (Labour, Coventry North East) also raised local fuel poverty issues with Ministers stressing they understood the danger of the issue.

Welcome for government energy efficiency measures

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition welcomes the government’s moves today to improve energy efficiency of people’s homes. We hope this is the first in a series of announcements that will help end fuel poverty in line with our submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The increase in Energy Performance Certificates to level C for those in private rented accommodation is especially welcome. The next step will be to ensure local authorities enforce these new regulations.

Homeowners in England, including landlords, can get up to £5,000 to pay part of the cost of energy saving measures like insulation. Low income households can get 100% of the costs of work covered up to £10,000.

The scheme will help fund energy efficiency and low carbon heating measures in 600,000 households who could save up to £600 a year on energy bills. Installing energy efficient home improvements also cuts emissions, which is better for the environment. Tradespeople and businesses should make sure they’re eligible to carry out work under the scheme, which will support thousands of green jobs.

More information is available online: https://greenhomesgrant.campaign.gov.uk/

 

One in three British households are already concerned about the health impacts of living in a cold home this winter. And should a second wave of Covid-19 hit during cold weather, the impact could be catastrophic for individuals and our health services.

As a result, the Coalition has urged the Government to commit to five main spending priorities:

1) Rapid roll-out of large-scale energy efficiency programmes

2) Urgent delivery of government promises on tackling fuel poverty

3) This unprecedented level of investment needs to be coupled with large scale training programmes

4) Immediate steps to improve energy standards in the private rented sector

5) Fuel Poverty Debt Relief to ensure fewer people will have to choose between heating and eating this winter

Coalition reveals five priorities for the Comprehensive Spending Review

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition has called on the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review to solve a problem that has plagued the country for generations.

The submission sets out how fuel poverty could be all but eradicated within the lifetime of this Parliament.

Evidence from Public Health England shows that fuel poverty puts households more at risk from the worst effects of Covid-19.

Therefore, ending fuel poverty is now an urgent public health priority, which can only be solved through economic measures.

The benefits of ending fuel poverty include a faster transition to a just net zero, the levelling up of the economy and a green stimulus to aid the recovery from lockdown.

On the other hand, with energy use rising as people stay at home more and the predicted income squeeze, it is estimated that the numbers in fuel poverty could soar by 200,000. The recent National Energy Action / Energy Action Scotland monitor revealed a significant hardship for fuel poor households in the coming winter, as a potent combination of higher energy use resulting from staying at home for longer is mixed with reductions in income.

One in three British households are already concerned about the health impacts of living in a cold home this winter. And should a second wave of Covid-19 hit during cold weather, the impact could be catastrophic for individuals and our health services.

As a result, the Coalition urges the Government to commit to five main spending priorities:

1) Rapid roll-out of large-scale energy efficiency programmes

2) Urgent delivery of government promises on tackling fuel poverty

3) This unprecedented level of investment needs to be coupled with large scale training programmes

4) Immediate steps to improve energy standards in the private rented sector

5) Fuel Poverty Debt Relief to ensure fewer people will have to choose between heating and eating this winter

The full submission can be read online: http://www.endfuelpoverty.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/End-Fuel-Poverty-Coalition-CSR-Submission-FINAL.pdf

Warning of difficult winter ahead for fuel poor households

A new report warns of significant hardship for fuel poor households in the coming winter, as a potent combination of higher energy use resulting from staying at home for longer is mixed with reductions in income.

The UK Fuel Poverty Monitor, produced by fuel poverty charities National Energy Action and Energy Action Scotland, collected evidence from 73 organisations to understand the impact that Covid-19 has had on energy consumers, and look ahead to the challenges they will face this winter.

The research found that three quarters of frontline organisations are concerned that there is a high risk that fuel debt will increase this winter as a direct result of the pandemic, while 98% believe that there is a moderate or high risk of more households cutting back on their energy use due to being forced to spend more time at home during lockdown periods.

The risks were found to be most acute for prepayment meter households, who found it more difficult to top up when asked not to leave their homes, and many of whom will be in significant debt even before this winter. This creates a particularly stark situation in Northern Ireland, where a far greater proportion of the population uses prepayment energy meters.

This supports broader evidence that this winter will be particularly hard for those that struggle to afford a warm home:

  • Over the last five winters the number of excess winter deaths due to living in a cold home is estimated at approximately 10,000 per year.
  • During the lockdown months, energy efficiency measure installs dropped by almost 90%, the equivalent to 30,000 fewer measures installed.
  • In the event of a winter lockdown, families in cold, leaky homes would face heating bills elevated £49 higher than those in well insulated homes.
  • One in three British households are concerned about the health impacts of living in a cold home this winter.

Adam Scorer, Chief Executive of National Energy Action (NEA) said:

Cold weather always hits fuel poor households hard. This winter, the mixture of reduced incomes, higher energy costs and the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 will be a lethal cocktail for thousands of vulnerable people.

The experience of frontline organisations, working with some of the most vulnerable households, cries out for increasing the level of support and advice that is available

In the spring we needed to react quickly and adapt to the crisis. That happened pretty well. For the winter we can plan and resource properly. If we don’t, the cost will be high indeed”.

Frazer Scott, Director of Energy Action Scotland (EAS) and co-author of the report concludes:

 Scotland is facing a particularly challenging winter this year. As industry struggles to return to work improving housing for the most vulnerable, and job losses combine with the end of debt repayment holidays, tens of thousands of households are facing a very worrying time.

Estimates see fuel poverty rates in Scotland rising to 29% of households many of whom will be facing the threat of a harsh Scottish winter in a cold, damp home. Many of these people will become ill in an all too familiar pattern and will be forced to rely upon NHS Scotland which is already facing unprecedented pressures on its services this year.

Unlike some of the problems we face as a country, there are many proven solutions to fuel poverty. Let us make this the year we act upon them and prioritise the most vulnerable in society with help.”  

Although there are increased risks this winter, the report finds that action can still be taken to mitigate the impacts of the virus on fuel poor households this winter by:

  • Improving the identification of customers in need, by using all available data.
  • Improving the awareness and communication of available assistance.
  • Providing support for prepayment energy customers.
  • Addressing the increasing amounts of energy debt that have accrued as a result of the crisis.
  • Addressing a hiatus in policy making, and policy programme delivery

Hundreds of thousands set to be forced into fuel poverty

Over 200,000 households are set to fall into fuel poverty as the economy struggles to recover from lockdown, according to new estimates. [1]

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition is warning that as the numbers in fuel poverty soar, a future wave of COVID-19 striking during colder weather could be catastrophic for individuals and health services.

Public Health England have declared that there is “clear evidence on the links between cold temperatures and respiratory problems. Resistance to respiratory infections is lowered by cool temperatures and can increase the risk of respiratory illness.” [2]

The Coalition has launched a petition calling on the government to build on announcements in the Economic Statement and take urgent action to save lives and help address the financial impact of the current crisis.

Fuel poverty is caused by low income, high fuel prices, poor energy efficiency, unaffordable housing and poor quality private rental housing. At least 2.4m households in England are already in fuel poverty, affecting 10% of the population. [3]

William Baker, from Solutions to Tackle Energy Poverty and member of the Coalition, commented:

It has never been more important for the government to fix the roof while the sun is shining.

While it is summer now, colder temperatures are on the way and hundreds of thousands more people will feel the harsh reality of fuel poverty. In just a few months we could see a perfect storm of cold homes, high winter fuel bills and a future wave of COVID-19 hitting the NHS during winter – a period when it always struggles to maintain services.

The Coalition wrote to the Prime Minister on 23 June setting out four steps for the government to take to tackle fuel poverty before the winter.

The Chancellor’s Economic Statement of 8 July introduced partial measures to help improve energy efficiency, but the Coalition argues that the government must go further.

Jacky Peacock, from Advice4Renters, said:

Ending fuel poverty is a public health priority, but it can only be solved through economic measures.

The government must deliver its full manifesto pledge to invest £9.2 billion in building energy efficiency, extend the Warm Home Discount and introduce wider Home Upgrade Grants. It must also take further steps to improve energy standards in the private rented sector, alongside improved security and affordability for private tenants.

Finally, we must see a Fuel Poverty Debt Relief, not deferral of payment, programme introduced to ensure fewer people will have to choose between heating and eating.

Ruth London from Fuel Poverty Action added:

The Chancellor’s £2 billion for energy efficiency retrofits could have done wonders to relieve fuel poverty.  Instead, targeted at homeowners and landlords, it will do very little for renters. And without clear protections, homeowners will be at the mercy of high-pressure sales teams and unskilled retrofitters, who can leave them colder, and poorer, than before.

The public have been asked to show their support for steps to tackle fuel poverty by signing the petition https://www.change.org/EndFuelPoverty.

[1] End Fuel Poverty Coalition calculations. Unemployment is predicted to rocket from 1.29m to 3.08m people by late 2020, with the OECD predicting even higher figures. 3.08m people equates to 1.17m households. 148,000 or 30% of households with an unemployed HRP were fuel poor in 2018 (Government data). This will increase to 351,000 households in late 2020, assuming the fuel poverty rate for the unemployed is still 30% – a growth of over 200,000 households. Furthermore, many more households are likely to be forced into fuel poverty due to both reduced income and higher fuel bills arising from fewer working hours and spending more time in the home. 

[2] PHE, 2014. Warm homes enable immune systems to better fight off viruses, improve the likelihood of people with viruses only suffering ‘mild’ symptoms and help improve the recovery process. See: Baker, Ambrose et. al. https://extra.shu.ac.uk/ppp-online/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/stuck-home-cold-covid-19-fuel-poor.pdf

[3] http://www.endfuelpoverty.org.uk/latest-fuel-poverty-data-published/

Coalition responds to Chancellor’s Economic Statement

Ending fuel poverty is a public health priority, which can only be solved through economic measures. We hope that the plans set out in the Chancellor’s Economic Statement are the first step towards an ambitious programme to end fuel poverty.

The Green Homes Grant and the social housing decarbonisation fund are welcome, but must be expanded to become long-term programmes. And the government must go further and faster.

The government must deliver the full manifesto pledge to invest £9.2 billion in building energy efficiency, extend the Warm Home Discount and introduce wider Home Upgrade Grants. It must also take further steps to improve energy standards in the private rented sector, alongside improved security and affordability for private tenants.

Finally, we must see a Fuel Poverty Debt Relief programme (not deferral) introduced to ensure fewer people will have to choose between heating and eating.

 

End Fuel Poverty Coalition writes to Prime Minister

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition has written to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, warning of the risks of a future wave of COVID-19 striking during colder winter months.

In the letter, copied to Minister Kwasi Kwarteng MP, the Coalition write:

Dear Prime Minister,

Urgent action is needed now to prevent tens of thousands of needless deaths which could overwhelm the country this coming winter.

Evidence from Public Health England (PHE) shows that fuel poverty puts households more at risk from the worst effects of Covid-19.

However, policy to end fuel poverty has been frozen for three years.

Should a second wave of Covid-19 hit during cold weather, the impact could be catastrophic for individuals and our health services.

Energy use is rising as people stay at home more, incomes are being squeezed and improvements in energy efficiency of housing are on hold.

This means the numbers in fuel poverty are set to soar.

While there is currently no cure for Covid-19, cold homes are entirely preventable and four clear actions must be taken to save lives and help address the financial impact of the current crisis:

  • Rapid roll-out of large-scale energy efficiency programmes which would also deliver a green economic stimulus that is shovel ready (e.g. retrofitting of people’s homes and improved heating systems). The Government must confirm their manifesto pledge to invest £9.2 billion in building energy efficiency and bring forward £2.8 billion to invest in the next two years which can support 42,500 jobs across the country and help a million households save an average of £270 on their energy bills. 150,000 jobs could be supported to 2030.
  • Urgent delivery of government promises on tackling fuel poverty, such as extension of Warm Home Discount, introduction of the promised Home Upgrade Grants and social housing decarbonisation programme.
  • Immediate steps to improve energy standards in the private rented sector, alongside improved security and affordability for private tenants.
  • Fuel Poverty Debt Relief (not deferral) to ensure fewer people will have to choose between heating and eating.

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition campaigns to influence government and other bodies to take action to end fuel poverty and thereby improve people’s health and quality of life as well as seeking to reduce the cost of living, create jobs and negate carbon emissions in the process. It is a broad coalition of over 20 anti-poverty, environmental, health and housing campaigners, charities, local authorities, trade unions and consumer organisations.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further or to hear your views on this vital issue.

A campaign on the potential devastating impact of fuel poverty combined with COVID-19 this winter will be launched by the Coalition shortly.

To be kept up to date – or join with this campaign – please email info@ endfuelpoverty.org.uk.

Latest fuel poverty data published

The latest data shows that 2.4m households are classed as being in fuel poverty in England.

This represents 10.3% of the population, which is down 0.7 percentage points from the previous figures.

The figures are based on the “old” definition of fuel poverty and not the one recommended by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition in its response to the fuel poverty strategy consultation.

Therefore, the numbers should be treated as an under-estimate of the scale of the problem.

Additionally, the Government has admitted that it does not have enough information to develop assumptions about the impact of Covid-19 on the numbers of households in fuel poverty.

Reports suggest that domestic energy use has increased 15% in the UK during lockdown and the huge increase in the number of people applying for Universal Credit suggest that many more may be struggling with their energy costs.

Adam Scorer, Chief Executive of fuel poverty charity National Energy Action which is a member of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said:

Every year around 10,000 people die directly as a result of a cold home. Many thousands more who cannot afford to keep their homes warm are hospitalised, suffer from a severe respiratory condition or just shiver in damp, cold homes.

Over the last decade more than 100,000 people in the UK have lost their lives to a cold home. It is chronicled each year in official excess winter death statistics. Unless the numbers are exceptional, that annual figure seems to be regarded as not ‘excessive’ at all, but within the bounds of some perverse statistical acceptability.

The impact of Covid-19 is truly horrific. But we have been fortunate that, so far, the virus has struck hard during warmer weather.  The possible coincidence of a further wave in a cold winter should make us think long and hard about the steps we need to take to avoid the deadly collision between Covid-19 and fuel poverty related mortality.

Among the many policy decisions delayed due to the coronavirus response are new Fuel Poverty Strategies, decisions on the main fuel poverty programmes and the centrality of domestic energy efficiency within an infrastructure strategy. The delay is understandable, and if used to make the hard connection between cold homes, ill health and vulnerability to early death, that delay could be beneficial.

Cold homes create underlying medical conditions. They take thousands of lives. Deaths and suffering from fuel poverty are not novel, unimaginable or unprecedented. It is an annual catalogue of failure, as society and successive governments to protect the most vulnerable. We know the cause, the scale and the consequence. We know the solutions. At this precise moment we should be more alert to these issues than ever before.

 

Emergency measures to support those in fuel poverty announced

New emergency measures have been agreed to protect the domestic energy supply of those most in need during the disruption caused by COVID-19.

From 19 March 2020, customers with pre-payment meters who may not be able to add credit can speak to their supplier about options to keep them supplied. This will benefit over 4 million customers.

This could include nominating a third party for credit top ups, having a discretionary fund added to their credit, or being sent a pre-loaded top up card so that their supply is not interrupted.

More broadly, any energy customer in financial distress will also be supported by their supplier, which could include debt repayments and bill payments being reassessed, reduced or paused where necessary, while disconnection of credit meters will be completely suspended.

Customers that are unable to top up their pre-payment meter are advised to contact their supplier immediately to discuss how they can be kept on supply.

Ofgem recommends consumers leave the meter box unlocked if they need someone else to top up the meter.

Smart meter customers should be able to top-up remotely, such as by phone, mobile application or online.

The government and energy industry have agreed to prioritise those existing customers most in need, while identifying customers whose circumstances may have changed as a direct or indirect result of COVID-19.

In addition, Ofgem has published full guidance on COVID-19.  It states:

The government has also launched an emergency package with energy suppliers to ensure you don’t face any additional hardships in heating or lighting your home during the coronavirus outbreak. If you are struggling with money problems or are repaying a debt, options will include:

  • reviewing bill payment plans, including debt repayment plans
  • payment breaks or reductions in how much you pay
  • giving you greater time to pay
  • in some cases access to hardship funds

No credit meters will be disconnected during the outbreak.

If you think you can’t afford to pay for any extra gas or electricity used because you’re having to self-isolate at home, support will be available through your energy supplier. Your supplier must take into account how much you can afford, and will explain your options.

For further general advice on household energy bill support, see our guide Who to contact if it’s difficult paying bills.

Information on the employment and financial support announced by the government on 20 March is available on GOV.UK. This includes the Universal Credit, Employment and Support Allowance and your rights if your hours are cut or you are laid off.

Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, Dame Gillian Guy, said:

This is an uncertain time for many people. Energy suppliers need to play their part by communicating clearly and supporting their customers as much as possible. Keeping people on supply, making sure they have warm homes and don’t face additional financial or other stresses about their energy supply will be essential.

The measures set out and agreed will be implemented immediately by energy suppliers to alleviate pressure on energy customers. Citizen’s Advice has published guidance to energy suppliers on best practice.

Chief executive of Energy UK, Audrey Gallacher, said:

The sector is very conscious of the potential consequences for customers confined to their homes for prolonged periods and in particular those customers in vulnerable circumstances or on prepayment meters who may need additional help.

Suppliers will be doing all they can to identify such customers and provide additional support wherever possible.

Ofgem will continue to ensure suppliers meet their regulatory obligations.

You can read about National Energy Action’s response to this announcement on their website.

Emergency measures needed to protect people pushed into poverty by Covid-19

Ahead of the government publishing emergency legislation to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Citizens Advice is calling for measures to ensure that vulnerable people and low-income families are not pushed into financial hardship as a result of the outbreak.

These include immediate changes to Universal Credit and the extension of the Cold Weather Payment to households that are self-isolating.

Those at particular risk include seven million people in the UK without savings to fall back on;  five million self-employed people; and those in 1.5 million low-income jobs that don’t qualify for statutory sick pay (SSP).

The charity warns many will also face higher energy bills and other essential costs as a consequence of having to self-isolate or stay at home to look after dependents.

Without action from the government, Citizens Advice fears the public health response to coronavirus could be undermined by people who feel they just cannot afford to self-isolate.

Citizens Advice has set out temporary emergency measures that could be taken to protect the most vulnerable during the outbreak, including:

  • Sick pay: Legislating to provide Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) at 80% of their wage for people earning less than the Lower Earnings Limit. Temporarily increasing SSP and the level of benefits to support people facing sustained drops in income.

  • Universal Credit: Suspending the Minimum Income Floor for all self-employed people. Making advance payments a grant for those making new claims and advised to self-isolate. Making use of repayment pauses for benefit debt and third party deductions.

  • Household bills: Extending the existing Cold Weather Payment to provide support for self-isolating households in receipt of Universal Credit or legacy benefits.

  • Housing: Legislating to suspend section 21 to temporarily stop no-fault evictions for private renters. Amending the grounds under which section 8 can be used to ensure people aren’t being evicted as a consequence of being in arrears due to coronavirus.

Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

The government has made it clear that it will do everything in its power to support the public health response to this virus, but financial protections are crucial to ensure people can follow guidance to self-isolate.

Millions of families across the country are already balanced on a financial cliff edge. Their biggest worry right now is that the knock-on effects of the coronavirus could send them tumbling over, with missed bills and rent arrears.

No one should fear being pushed into poverty if they fall ill or need to self-isolate. Yet without further emergency measures to protect society’s most vulnerable, this will be the reality for millions of people.