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.

Two million households could miss out on vital lifeline

A new report released today warns a scheme which provides a payment of £140 towards energy bills – the Warm Home Discount (WHD) – could end in March 2021, despite it providing a lifeline to millions of pensioners across Great Britain.

The authors also highlight that up to two million working age households across Great Britain could already be missing out on the energy rebate each winter, leading to difficulties keeping homes at a safe temperature.

National Energy Action (NEA) and Fair By Design (FBD) have teamed up to call for an extension and expansion of the scheme to ensure all eligible low income working age households receive the rebate automatically without needing to apply each year to their supplier.

Peter Smith, Director of Policy and Research at NEA commented:

For nine years the Warm Home Discount scheme has been hugely successful in ensuring that the most vulnerable pensioners receive vital rebates automatically and are better able to afford to keep their homes adequately warm over winter.

It’s crucial this continues. Legislative powers were also passed in Parliament three years ago which allow the Government and suppliers to provide this support automatically to working age households too but up to two million Brits  are missing out on £140 energy rebates each year.

This is despite them being eligible for support and paying for the cost of the policy through their energy bills.

NEA and FBD say most poorer customers miss out each year because the Warm Home Discount is poorly advertised which means many are unaware of its existence. And even when customers are aware and apply, their applications can be unsuccessful because there is only a finite amount of money available for the limited annual budget. Smaller suppliers are also not required to provide the WHD meaning some customers switch suppliers in order to benefit from a cheaper deal but end up losing their entitlement to the £140 rebate making them worse off.

Carl Packman, Head of Corporate Engagement at Fair By Design said:

Many low income households are already compelled to make a choice nobody should have to make: to heat or to eat.  At the same time many pay a poverty premium for the way they pay for household heat, which makes that desperate situation even worse.

The Warm Home Discount is a lifeline for many struggling to heat their homes, to levels many of us take for granted. But there is a risk the scheme will end in March 2021.

Putting £140 back in the pockets of millions of working age people will mean they pay a fair price for their energy. It mustn’t be underestimated just how valuable this measure will be.

NEA and FBD are calling for Government to extend and expand the Warm Home Discount scheme for at least three years and ensure smaller suppliers are also required to provide the WHD. Current powers within the Digital Economy Act allow Government to ensure that all those eligible for the WHD rebate actually receive it without reducing benefits for low income pensioner recipients who are most risk of dying over winter.

WHD Industry Initiatives also fund the work of community and voluntary organisations to deliver assistance with debt and energy advice. Without a commitment to the extension of this element of the scheme NEA and FBD have warned that this work will cease.

NEA and FBD’s full briefing highlights how this can be achieved in a cost neutral way. Smith concludes:

We hope the UK Government, Ofgem, parliamentarians, and energy companies work together  in 2020 to ensure that the scheme continues and expands after 2021.

British Gas reverse top-up decision after campaign

British Gas has announced that it is reversing its decision to increase the minimum top up for prepayment customers.

British Gas will work with Payzone and Post Office to ensure the minimum top up amount will move back to £1 for customers using any Payzone outlets or Post Offices to add credit to their prepayment meters.

The decision comes following a campaign led by Preet Kaur Gill MP and supported by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition.

Preet Kaur Gill MP commented:

This is a vital win for the thousands of people affected by British Gas’s decision to raise the minimum pre-pay top-up.

Campaigners will now turn their intention to other energy providers who have £5 minimum vend policies in operation. The MP will be writing to any of the other major energy companies who charge the higher top up amount to encourage them to follow British Gas’ lead and reduce their charge to £1.

She will also be looking at the related issue of the reduction of payzone points around the country which obviously has an effect on people’s ability to top-up their meters.

Sarwjit Sambhi, Chief Executive, Centrica Consumer, said:

Our customers are always at the heart of the decisions we make and so we’ve listened closely to feedback after making this change.

The aim of this move was to keep our costs down in order to offer our customers the best value, but I am happy to change this decision whilst we continue to look at ways that we can help our most vulnerable customers.

British Gas has a number of services available for any customers who struggle financially. It has specialist call centre agents to help anyone struggling to advise them on how to access the help they need. It also set up the British Gas Energy Trust as an independent charity that offers advice, assistance and grants to people who are struggling to pay their bills.

Brighton & Hove Council Pledge Action on Fuel Poverty

Brighton and Hove City Council has declared fighting fuel poverty a local priority.

Working with the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, the councillors developed a motion to examine the ways the local authority can tackle the problem.

The Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, Nancy Platts, said:

More than one in ten households in Brighton and Hove live in fuel poverty – that is above average for the south east.

Cold homes are linked to illness and winter deaths during normal winter weather. But, as the temperature drops below 6C, winter death rates increase.

More people die from cold homes than they do alcohol, Parkinson’s disease or traffic accidents.

She led a debate about fuel poverty at a meeting of the full council at Hove Town Hall on Thursday (30 January).

Green group convenor Phélim Mac Cafferty said that people were forced to choose between heating and eating. Councillor Mac Cafferty said:

Access to sustainable energy is vital to keep our residents’ fuel bills down.

Renewable energy run by and for our communities offers all of us the opportunity to combat climate change, bring down fuel bills, improve energy efficiency and reach people in fuel poverty.

The Council motion pledges to examine ways that the authority can take action to tackle fuel poverty. All local authorities have measures at their disposal which can help fight the issue, these include:

  1. improving energy efficiency of Council / housing association housing stock
  2. better enforcement of existing regulations on energy efficiency and property standards
  3. publishing a statement of intent to access Energy Company Obligation funding via LA Flex
  4. improving tenants’ rights
  5. providing information advice and guidance to those most in need

Fuel Poverty Coalition members including the London Borough of Camden helped to identify the ways councils can help beat fuel poverty and a template motion for other local authorities to use is available from the Coalition by emailing info@endfuelpoverty.org.uk.

The Council has also pledged to join the End Fuel Poverty Coalition.

Image by Clive D / Flickr / Creative Commons

 

 

Petition against minimum energy top-ups launched

The MP for one of the areas most hit by fuel poverty has launched a campaign against British Gas’ decision to increase the minimum top-up amount for customers on pay-as-you-go tariffs from £1 to £5.

The move has been criticised by anti-poverty campaigners and charities that claim it will impact parents and pensioners on low incomes who will be forced to make a choice between food and fuel.

More than 16% of households experience fuel poverty in Birmingham – well above the national average. Nationally, at least 3.66 million households are in fuel poverty.

Those who use top-up meters are often in debt and have insecure incomes, and rely on small top-ups to ration their heating to see themselves through to payday. Research shows that those on pre-pay meters pay hundreds of pounds more in tariffs on average than direct debit customers.

The MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, Preet Kaur Gill, has written to the CEO of British Gas, Sarwjit Sambhi, to urge him to take his ‘social responsibilities seriously and reverse the decision immediately’.

Ms Gill also set up an online petition to put pressure on British Gas, the country’s biggest energy supplier.

Ms Gill says:

This decision will disproportionately affect those who are already struggling to get by. To implement it in the middle of winter, and what is the most financially challenging time of the year for many people, is the height of social irresponsibility.

A company which last reported profits of £466 million should not be increasing the burden on its most hard-up customers. We ask that British Gas does the responsible thing and reverses this decision.

The public can sign the petition at: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/british-gas-reverse-the-minimum-top-up-rise-1

Call for action on the crisis of the winter death rate among penisoners

End Fuel Poverty Coalition Member, the National Pensioners Convention (NPC), is calling upon the next government to respond to figures released today that show that excess winter mortality rates in 2018 to 2019 reached 23,200 in all English regions and Wales.

Excess winter mortality rates continue to be higher in females compared with males, with the figure highest in females aged 90 years and over. Respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia, remain the leading cause of death.

Today’s figures are proof that older people struggle with poor housing, rising fuel costs, and a basic state pension that is inadequate and bottom of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) league table.

Pensioner poverty is increasing with 2 million pensioners living in poverty and one in three older people living in homes with inadequate heating or insulation making their homes more difficult to heat or keep warm.

Jan Shortt NPC General Secretary said:

The next government must make a commitment to end fuel poverty and ensure that energy companies do not abuse the implementation of the next cap on prices.

The key to tackling winter deaths is to make sure older people have got a well-insulated, warm home and the income needed to pay the fuel bills.

This is a basic requirement of what a decent society should do. We need the next government to roll out a more effective programme to insulate homes, building more suitable properties for older people and raising the winter fuel allowance in line with inflationary costs of energy.

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition released a Manifesto setting out the changes the next government needs to make to end the scourge of fuel poverty.

Ending fuel poverty must be priority for next government

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition has called on all political parties to adopt four pledges to end the scourge of fuel poverty in England.

A full copy of the Manifesto is available for download and prospective Parliamentary Candidates wishing to show their support can do so by signing up online.

Fuel poverty means that a household is forced below the poverty line as a result of the cost of using energy in their home.

According to the latest definition of fuel poverty, almost one in five households are in fuel poverty in England alone (BEIS).

Fuel poverty is caused by low income, high fuel prices, poor energy efficiency, unaffordable housing prices and poor quality rental housing.

It can lead to respiratory, circulatory and mental health problems (PHE) as well c.15,000 winter deaths caused by cold homes (NEA). In children, it can lead to developmental problems and poor performance at school (NCB). It can also lead to people taking days off work (IPPR).

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition calls on all political parties to commit to a Manifesto that will end fuel poverty for good. To achieve this, the next Government must:

  1. Declare energy efficiency and eliminating fuel poverty a national infrastructure priority.
  2. Take immediate action to improve the standards of rented homes.
  3. Reform the domestic energy supply market.
  4. End the Benefits Freeze and address the chronic scale of unclaimed benefits

 Jacky Peacock, Director of Advice4Renters, said:

Without more ambitious action, people will be condemned to fuel poverty for decades to come. As well as the devastating impacts cold homes have on their occupants, the delayed cost of inaction extends to all of us.

Addressing fuel poverty is a crucial part of meeting new stretching carbon reduction targets. Without a big improvement in current efforts, the government will not meet its climate change targets.

Ruth London of Fuel Poverty Action, added:

Ending fuel poverty is in our grasp if a National Energy Efficiency Programme is combined with fully funded support for people in fuel poverty, reform of the private rented sector, effective accountability to social housing residents, and proactive, genuinely independent and fully empowered local authority supervision of retrofits and new residential construction.

As well as providing detailed recommendations to policy makers, the Coalition Manifesto sets out the benefits to ending fuel poverty.

Improving the energy efficiency standards of Britain’s homes could cut household bills by around £370 a year, while reducing reliance on gas imports by a quarter. It would also boost economic growth, create jobs in every constituency of the country and reduce pressure on health and social care services.

Improved winter warmth and lowered relative humidity have proven benefits for cardiovascular, respiratory, and mental health. For every £1 spent on retrofitting fuel-poor homes an estimated £0.42 is saved in UK National Health Service spending.

Peter Smith, Director of Policy and Research at National Energy Action (NEA), said:

Ending fuel poverty is a crucial part of meeting new stretching carbon reduction targets and improving health and well-being.

The key actions that are necessary are in our grasp and have cross-party support. We hope our recommendations will be acted on by all the main political parties within their manifestos.”

A full copy of the Manifesto is available for download.

Prospective Parliamentary Candidates wishing to show their support for the End Fuel Poverty Manifesto can do so by signing up online, emailing info@endfuelpoverty.org.uk or completing the form below.

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