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Fuel poverty: people talk about their ongoing struggle to pay their fuel bills

Since the end of last year, as bad weather began and even colder weather approached, Abi Ramanan has been talking to people who are struggling to keep themselves and their homes warm. Fuel Poverty Action is also running a campaign to find out more about the real costs of prepay metres and people who are being forced to use prepay metres. Follow their site for more on that campaign and upcoming actions.

Article by Abi Ramanan.

On average at least 65 people a day die in the UK in winter as a result of illnesses due to cold homes.

It is surreal that in the seventh richest country in the world, people are dying in their homes because they can’t afford to heat them. But they are, and by their thousands. Welcome to Big Society Britain.

As the campaign group Fuel Poverty Action explains: “Over 1 in 4 UK households face an impossible choice between heating and eating this winter.”

This isn’t just a catchy slogan but a heartbreaking reality for many people, with, of course, the most vulnerable (pensioners, disabled people, children) affected the worst. Research carried out for Consumer Focus in November 2011 ‘estimated that just under 5.7 million households in England and Wales (25% of ALL households in England and Wales) are in fuel poverty.’ The number of fuel poor households is set to increase to 9.1m in the UK by 2016. This is equivalent to 1 in 3 households.

Meanwhile, the ‘Big Six’ energy companies made a combined profit of £3.7 billion in 2012, with further price hikes on the way. This suitably titled short film ‘A Nail in the Coffin’ explains the sad situation pretty well. Throw in allegations of gas-price fixing activity, and the ‘dash for gas’ and we’ve got ourselves a real doozy of a corporate greed story. However - not to worry. The government demonstrated *excellent* leadership by suggesting that people in fuel poverty wear jumpers to keep warm and David Cameron promises to slash green taxes; ‘we’ve got to get rid of this green crap’.

At a protest about fuel poverty, I met Diane, a lovely retired lady who lives in Brixton. She has lived in her flat for 27 years. I went over to have a chat. Diane told me how it was freezing in her flat last winter: “My kids got me some slippers and a good blanket and I just lived in those. It is going to be the same this year; I can’t afford to get a big bill. I heard stories of people getting their doors broken down last year by British Gas and some of the other energy companies because they wanted to fit a pre-payment meter. Those companies always say, ‘we never cut anyone off, we look after people’, but giving someone a pre-payment meter effectively cuts them off as you have to pay in advance, and if they can’t then they’re cut off. In England, the people with the lowest income pay the most for fuel, gas and electric. And on top of that, £1.92 out of every £10 that goes into a key meter is a standing charge. That is 3 different levels of discrimination.”

Diane believes lowering the charges and the cost of having a pre-payment meter is a simple step that would make a huge difference for those worst affected. She is really worried about one of her sons who lives in Brixton and is in a much worse situation than her: “He’s got the pre-payment meter and regularly runs out of money. He can’t afford to eat half the time and he’s always looking for a job. He’s an artist and I think as a society we should look after our creative people much better. I also have five grandkids, but two of my daughters, especially the one with a baby, don’t want to bring them here anymore, they say it’s too cold. This didn’t even occur to me until I heard someone on the news saying ‘some people can’t even have their relatives over anymore’ and I thought yeah, that’s me. I’m already living like that.”

Diane is understandably concerned about the effects colder weather will have on her: “The council have been round fitting a new boiler, but my neighbours came over and said that the new one is actually going to be worse. I signed papers 6 months ago saying that I didn’t want it done but then they kind of bullied me into it, especially because I’ve been standing up for the neighbours. Such a bad job is being done with poor quality materials, so many people are unhappy about it all over Lambeth. We need a revolution.”

I spoke to one of Diane’s neighbours who didn’t want to be named, as she is worried about her grandchildren being taken away by social services.

Jane* told me how she has lived in Brixton for 25 years and works part-time at an after-school club and as a dinner lady. She lives in a 2 bedroom flat with her brother, daughter, and her two grandchildren, aged one and five.

Here is a breakdown of her fuel costs: “The electric, key and gas meter costs over £5 a day, whether we are at home or not. I’ve been on pay-as-you-go meters the whole time I’ve lived here, but the price increases have been coming more and more often. I end up paying between £60 and £70 pounds a week in the winter, when the heating is only on for a few hours a day. It’s unaffordable, and also means we can’t spend money on anything else; sometimes we barely have enough for food. I am really worried about the children, especially the baby, they’ve started getting ill and it hasn’t even become really cold yet.”

Last winter, Jane’s brother got really ill: “His room is mainly glass and is so cold. I feel the most sorry for him. He got a chest infection, and he is vulnerable and elderly anyway. The cold also had an impact on all of our mental health. We got depressed. When the £5 that I put in the meter runs out, I panic. Once I had to call the energy emergency service number in the middle of the night to ask for help. I genuinely think that David Cameron and Nick Clegg don’t mind getting rid of a few people in the winter, it’s probably their means of population control; they don’t care about people dying which is why they give such stupid advice. Their hearts have been ripped out.”

I spoke to an A+E doctor from a West London A+E department. In the winter she treats a lot of elderly people suffering from hypothermia. They are often women, malnourished (see ‘tea and toast syndrome’) and live alone. Usually, they will be living with only one heated room and accidents occur when they fall trying to get from one room to another. They tend to lie there all night and by the time the postman or a carer finds them, they have hypothermia. “The most severe case of hypothermia I have ever seen was in November 2013, this patient’s temperature was 25 degrees, which is 10 degrees lower than it should be.”

She explained how these types of cases have a huge knock-on effect in terms of a loss of confidence, mobility and, put bluntly, a desire to live. When you’re that cold it takes a lot to warm you up again. The doctor explained how she sees a big increase in these cases during the winter, and considering how bad last year was she isn’t overly optimistic about the coming months. I’d probably be bracing myself for the worst if I were her, especially because the government has cut funding to help those in fuel poverty by a quarter.

I contacted a few of the Big Six, along with Energy UK to see what they had to say about all this, and predictably they responded by sending me copied and pasted press releases.

Here’s a snippet of Energy UK’s: “Companies do try and cushion price rises for their customers wherever possible, but becoming more reliant on imported gas has meant that British gas prices have become increasingly influenced by global events. There is also a massive £110 billion investment required by 2020 to ensure that the UK’s energy supply remains secure.”

This really begs the question, why isn’t the government investing more in renewable energy? As Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director for Age UK said: “Energy efficiency is the only sustainable long term solution to rising energy costs, and decisive action is urgently needed to tackle the root cause of the problem – the UK’s poorly insulated housing. As part of a clear, long term strategy, the government must commit to using carbon tax revenues to insulate fuel poor homes against soaring energy prices once and for all.”

Other comments from people fighting fuel poverty:

Betty Cottingham from the Greater London Pensioner’s Association

I’m here (at a fuel poverty protest) because there’s such a contrast between all the wealth that is around here and the poor people who can’t afford to hear their homes. I’m in the fortunate position of having a pension and so does my husband so we can put on the heating on from time to time. We don’t keep it on too long though, we are very careful. But I know so many people who’ve got meters, which they can install without even getting permission sometimes. That’s the most expensive way of paying; it is absolutely awful. In Ireland and other countries it is the other way round, people on meters get the cheapest rate, not here though. I think it is obscene that thousands of people are dying in their homes in order to make bigger profits for the energy companies.

Andy Greene, a campaigner with Disabled People Against Cuts

What are your thoughts on the Big Six energy companies, Andy?

They’re a disgrace. That is why I’m here today: to highlight the amount of disabled people who are impacted by fuel poverty. I want to show N-Power that disabled people are having their support and services stripped away and being isolated at home. When that happens, part of keeping body and soul together is being able to heat your home, eat properly and clean yourself. Fewer and fewer disabled people are able to do that now, and this is causing extreme circumstances and deaths.

Mary*, a pensioner, didn’t want to be named.

Hi Mary. Why are you angry about energy prices?

Because the cost of heating and electricity is increasing and it is using up a large amount of my income. I’m 67 and I remember when fuel and energy used to belong to us, and we were happy with that. But with these companies now, the price is steadily increasing. I changed to a meter with EDF a while ago to get a fixed rate. I did all the right things, even going onto a direct debit to save extra pounds, but increasingly they were taking hundreds of pounds out of my account. I couldn’t stop them because I was told that I needed their consent to do so. I finally got through to someone after a couple of months and she said lets go through what appliances you have in your home. The first question she asked me was if I had a Jacuzzi. I mean, I just did not even know how to respond. I live in social housing and have a two bedroom flat because my son lives with me.

How do you cope in winter?

Well, I already don’t use the living room, as I can’t afford to heat it, I just stay in my bedroom. I used to have a TV in there but I got rid of it. I stay in bed to keep warm, it’s sad but it’s the truth.

Joel Benjamin, from energy switching campaign EDF*off

Why are you advocating for people to switch their energy Joel?

Because the Big Six energy companies have a total monopoly, and the government has failed to break this up and transition to a renewable energy future. Recently, the government approved the EDF-Hinkley project, which will see £37 billion of subsidies enforced on the UK taxpayer for 40 years, seeing us pay twice the market rate for electricity. Even though the government refuses to nationalise UK energy providers, they are providing billions in subsidies to the French government and frankly it is unacceptable. Also, the average fuel bill has doubled since 2004, and on top of this the government has significantly cut the funds available to help those in fuel poverty.

That sounds awful. Where can we switch to?

Check out our website (www.edfoff.org), we only deal with energy suppliers who offer a positive vision for the future and a commitment to distributed renewable energy.

There are many, many more examples of people suffering as a result of fuel poverty on the ‘speak out on your situation’ section of Fuel Poverty Action’s website.

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