Reports highlight growing fuel poverty crisis

Two reports have highlighted the gulf between rhetoric and reality in the fight against fuel poverty.

The latest BEIS Committee on Fuel Poverty report revealed that only 15% of funding to improve energy efficiency and help with fuel bills actually went to households in fuel poverty.

Commenting, a spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition said:

This is a devastating report which highlights just how much work the government has to do to alleviate the rapidly growing fuel poverty crisis.

Improved financial assistance this winter must be matched by rapid and targeted investment in improving energy efficiency of homes in the long-term. The Budget later this month simply cannot ignore introducing urgent measures to help people.

Meanwhile a report by AgilityEco and Gemserv reveals that current funding and policy to relieve fuel poverty will help only a fraction of the 3.2 million homes that were in fuel poverty in 2019. 

The legally binding target to all but end fuel poverty by 2030 requires a further £18 billion to be spent in fuel poor homes across the rest of the 2020s. Even if some proposed action is taken, double the amount of current funding is still required for energy efficiency programmes.  

A spokesperson for Coalition members, National Energy Action, commented:

The urgent need to provide additional support to fuel poor households has never been greater. We know what needs to be done and how far current policies will take us. We also know all too well the consequences of not meeting our legal duties to help the poorest households who live in the least efficient homes.

Beyond directly supporting the most vulnerable households through this winter and better targeting of current policies, we need to boost investment to improve home energy efficiency in fuel poor homes. Public investment in keeping people warm and well pays for itself and will deliver huge national benefits.

The Treasury’s upcoming Budget and Spending Review provides a vital opportunity to protect health outcomes and support the most vulnerable people across the United Kingdom as well as delivering the Government’s levelling up agenda.

Image: Mike McBey / Flickr / Creative Commons

New figures show 3m households face fuel poverty

Press Association have reported that the English government has released the latest fuel poverty statistics, the first since an updated definition of fuel poverty was adopted.

The change to the definition came following a consultation on a new fuel poverty strategy for England.

The Coalition supported the widening of the definition to include all low income households living in cold homes (the ‘Low Income, Low Energy Efficiency’ indictor). It is believed this will better incentivise energy efficiency.

This initially suggested that the number of fuel poor households in England would sit at 3.66 million: an increase from 2.4m using the previous definition.

However, the new figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy suggest the proportion of families in fuel poverty will fall from 13.4% or 3.18 million homes in 2019, to 12.5% or 3 million homes in 2021.

The latest figures suggest 180,000 households are being brought out of fuel poverty between 2019 and 2021, around 90,000 a year, driven by improvements to energy efficiency that lift properties up to a rating of C or above. But nearly half of low-income households are still living in homes with poor energy efficiency.

A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition said:

These figures are the first under the new measurement for fuel poverty and show the scale of the challenge facing governments – both at a national and local level.

While any predicted reduction in fuel poverty is to be welcomed, we are concerned that the reduction in Covid financial support later this year will offset any improvement predicted.

We also need to see continued and renewed emphasis on delivering policies that will end fuel poverty as quickly as possible.

Image: Shutterstock

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

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.

 

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.

Third of benefit claimants fall behind on bills

New data from Citizens Advice shows 49% of benefit claimants affected by the benefits freeze have struggled to meet essential costs such as rent, household bills and food while 40% have lost sleep due to money worries in the past 12 months.

The report, achieving income security for all, found that 33% have fallen behind on household bills (such as their energy bills) and 38% have gone without essentials like heating or food.

The findings are worse for Universal Credit claimants, with over half (55%) having gone without essentials such as food, and 51% saying they have lost sleep because of their finances.

The charity is calling for increased financial support for people claiming benefits as it finds almost two in five (39%) people who claim have less than £100 at the end of each month, after paying for rent or their mortgage, food, council tax and household bills.

Disabled people and people with children were more likely to have gone without essentials such as food and toiletries. Around 44% of disabled people’s households and 45% of households with children went without in the past 12 months.

Citizens Advice is calling on the government to end the freeze on benefit rates and reduce the five-week wait for Universal Credit claims.

Since April 2016, the level of most benefits like Universal Credit and Tax Credits has been frozen.

This is having serious consequences for people with over a quarter (27%) of people claiming benefits saying financial worries have made them feel lonely/isolated. Some 29% say financial worries have affected their mental health.

Citizens Advice provides free, independent and impartial advice in England and Wales and last year we helped 580,000 people across England and Wales with their benefits. Some one in six households in the UK claim income-related benefits.

Citizens Advice is calling for urgent solutions from the government:

  • End the freeze on benefit rates. Uprate payments by the Consumer Prices Index plus 2% for four years. Recalculate the Local Housing Allowance to at least the 30th percentile of local rents and re-establish the link with rental prices.
  • Reduce the five-week wait by bringing forward the first non-repayable payment to no later than two weeks into a Universal Credit claim.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

The benefits system is designed to help people with their finances in times of need, but too often our frontline staff and volunteers see a different story.

We’ve found people are losing sleep and unable to afford essential things like food and housing while receiving Universal Credit. It is totally unacceptable that our benefits system is not providing the financial safety net that people need.

The government needs to take urgent action in this week’s spending review by reducing the five-week wait for Universal Credit and ending the freeze on benefit rates.

Danielle, a parent of two children who was helped by Citizens Advice, said:

I have been through so much in the past year. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went through chemotherapy and now I am in remission and healthwise am doing so much better.

Universal Credit during this time added so much stress that I did not need. My payments were delayed when I went from being self-employed to being off due to needing chemotherapy.

Thankfully I have family who were able to help me to make sure my rent was paid. And I repaid them when I received my Universal Credit payments. But the stress of thinking I might not be there for my children and how I would pay my bills was at times unbearable.

Bonfield Review overlooks local level fuel poverty interventions

The Each Home Counts review, or Bonfield Review, was launched in 2015 to consider issues relating to consumer advice, protection, standards and enforcement in relation to home energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in the UK.

It makes 27 recommendations on the themes below:

  • Consumer advice and protection
  • Standards framework
  • Monitoring and enforcement

We regard the Bonfield Review as an important opportunity to lay out practical measures to support energy efficiency measures, with the intention to eradicate fuel poverty as one of the key motivators. However, while the review makes some helpful proposals we are concerned that some key factors have been overlooked.

Primarily, a lack of focus on the importance of local and bespoke, personalised advice and support, as well as a poor integration between local and national government in the development and delivery of the measures proposed.

EFPC response to the Bonfield Review outlines three key recommendations:

Recommendation 1: Advice for fuel poor customers, particularly those that are vulnerable, needs to be embedded in wider local referral networks.

Recommendation 2: Ensure that provision of a local holistic fuel poverty advice service is supported by and funded by all relevant departments i.e. Department of Health, DWP and BEIS.

Recommendation 3: Advice must be provided in a variety of formats: telephone, internet and face to face, including home visits from trusted intermediaries for the most vulnerable.

You can read EFPC response to the Bonfield Review and the full review itself here.

Advisory body calls for major funding injection to meet fuel poverty targets

Substantial investment is required if the government is to meet its fuel poverty targets according to its advisory body. The first report of the Committee on Fuel Poverty makes clear that the government must find £20bn if it is serious about meeting its legally binding fuel poverty target – that the energy standards of all fuel poor homes must be at least EPC C by 2030, the standard of homes built today.

The Committee also warns that without a substantial injection of funding, the government is likely to miss its two interim milestones set out in its 2015 Fuel Poverty Strategy, that is:

  • by 2020 no fuel poor household should live in a dangerously cold home – below EPC E; and
  • by 2025, no fuel poor household should live in a cold home – below EPC

The Committee makes 15 recommendations to government. As well as more money, it recommends re-introducing the Landlord’s Energy Savings Allowance; more financial assistance for households as they wait for energy efficiency improvements; improved targeting of fuel poor households through better data sharing; and improved energy advice.

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition welcomes the CFP’s report and its echoing our core concerns.

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition is calling for the government to:

1. Make sure £20bn is invested in improving fuel poor homes, as recommended by the Committee

2. Hold a much-delayed parliamentary debate on fuel poverty as legally required, already overdue from May

3. Put in place a detailed cross-departmental strategy and plan to show how it will meet the 2030 target and interim milestones

More information on the recommendations of the report are summarised on our website and in the full report.

Read the End Fuel Poverty Coalition’s response to the Committee on Fuel Poverty’s report here.

Committee for Fuel Poverty releases its first annual report

The government’s advisory group on fuel poverty, the Committee for Fuel Poverty, this week released its first annual report after being established at the start of the year.

Tasked with advising government on fuel poverty policy, specifically the delivery of its Fuel Poverty Strategy, the report offers detailed analysis and a series of urgent recommendations in order for impending 2020 and 2030 government fuel poverty targets to be met.

Noting the closeness of the government’s 2020 target deadline, it makes a series of urgent recommendations to increase the efficiency, impact and likelihood of averting expected shortfalls in delivery and funding. Even with ramped up and more targeted action, the committee notes that to meet the 2020 milestones there would be a back-up of activity in 2018 and 2019.

Of particular note, the report recommends;

• A stronger emphasis on improvements in the targeting of fuel poor households, right down to being able to identify individual addresses to facilitate roll out of specific services and support.

• Better Data Sharing legislation to connect up information held across government departments.

• Moving expenditure from the full suite of Government fuel poverty programmes so that it is more focused on fuel poor households, to include Winter Fuel Payments, Cold Weather Payments and the Warm Home Discount.

• The provision of a ‘targeting efficiency metric’ for each fuel poverty programme.

• Fuel poor households to be given help with fuel bills until their homes are improved.

• A greater role for councils, charities and health agencies to work alongside fuel companies to delivery energy efficiency programmes.

• Investing into energy efficiency from National Infrastructure funds.

• Placing onus on private landlords to fund energy efficiency up to minimum standards in their properties.

More detailed analysis of the report will be provided by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, but in the meantime information on the Committee for Fuel Poverty and its report and recommendations can be found here, as well as the government’s 2015 fuel poverty strategy ‘Cutting the cost of keeping warm’ for reference.

Health and wellbeing boards failing to sufficiently tackle fuel poverty, NEA report outlines

EFPC member, National Energy Action, this week launched ‘Get Warm Soon?’, its report investigating the impact of health and wellbeing boards in England in their approach to tackling fuel poverty.

The report assesses how many health and wellbeing boards in England are including public health indicators on fuel poverty and excess winter deaths in their needs assessments and health and wellbeing strategies. It also assesses the extent to which health and wellbeing boards are applying National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommendations to reduce ill health associated with living in a cold home.

While there are some signs for optimism, NEA’s findings show serious call for concern on the role and impact of health and wellbeing boards in tackling fuel poverty.

• 40% of health and wellbeing board strategies fail to address fuel poverty or excess winter deaths.

• Only 32% of health and wellbeing boards reference actions in their joint strategic needs assessments or strategy that are in line with at least one of the 12 NICE recommendations.

• 30% have some form of health and housing referral service in place to provide tailored solutions to people vulnerable to the cold, but only one-fifth of boards reference such a service in their strategies.

• Evidence of procedures that make sure hospitals and other service providers do not discharge patients into cold homes is only available for 13% of boards.

• The majority of health and wellbeing boards are not yet playing the leadership role envisaged by NICE and Public Health England to address ill health from cold homes

• More optimistically, there is an increase in the number of boards prioritising fuel poverty as a health and wellbeing issue, with more than a third of boards now doing so.

Get Warm Soon?’ goes on to outline a series of recommendations, focusing on;

• Incorporating the NICE guidance into joint health and wellbeing strategies
• Improving public health leadership to tackle cold homes
• Improving accountability
• Implementing the NICE recommendations
• Tailoring fuel poverty schemes to address public health priorities

For more information contact NEA and read the full report or executive summary.