Fuel Poverty: the new social evil

Only it’s not so new. Fuel poverty has always been around and the recent news that the poorest in UK are being exploited by the gas suppliers comes as no surprise to me. Back in 1999 more than a million people had their gas supply cut off by ruthless gas bosses so it would appear that after ten years of Nu-Labour’s pre-election poverty pledges and their compassionate rhetoric towards to poor, their gestures have been just that, gestures.

Word is that energy companies are making huge profits from people who, due to financial difficulties, have prepay meters installed:

Firms make about half a billion pounds a year in extra charges from prepayment meters, Consumer Focus estimates.

Energy suppliers say that prepay meters help poorer families to budget better but in fact those poorer families end up paying more than those who are able to take advantage of the luxurious cheaper option of monthly direct debit payments or other similar deals. How can they possibly justify such a system? I just can’t for the life of me understand how the fat cats can sleep soundly in the knowledge that some poor little girl or some elderly man is shivering in bed as a direct result of the unethical and unequal payment systems.

Someone once said it’s very expensive to be poor. Yes, it’s a shocking injustice that the poor pay more for basic essentials such as gas, electricity and banking. Did you know that power disconnections due to non-payment have trebled in two years and are set to rise even higher this Winter because of the soaring costs? And if that’s not shameful enough, according to the BMJ, Britain has the highest excessive Winter mortality than any other European country. To you and me, that means we have the highest number of avoidable deaths due to the cold in Europe. As the fourth richest country on Earth, this is nothing less than scandalous. The government is supposed to have provided a safety net so that the most vulnerable are not disconnected but clearly, those death figures do not support that.

There are many negative consequences of fuel poverty such as children under-achieving, ill-health, death and so on so surely it’s logical and more beneficial in the long run for the government to eradicate fuel poverty. And in any case its downright immoral that the poorest are penalised for paying their bills the only way they can.

Why aren’t these energy companies being made to comply with some kind of ethical policy that ensures the poorest families and pensioners won’t be forced into a Dickensian lifestyle? Hell, we’ve gone back hundreds of years. For goodness sake! This is 2008 and people are having to choose between gas and food!

Well I guess the poor families can be comforted by the fact that Christmas is coming and they can have themselves a jolly poor Dickens of a Christmas. The grubby-faced children can gather around the cosy unlit fire and convince themselves that they’ve never had it so good and they should be bloody-well grateful for the blessings that they are receiving because after all, there are far worse off kids than them.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m being dramatic and it’s been pointed out to me that there really are children who are much worse off but is it really helpful to compare them to the starving African children or the wretched orphans of the Eastern countries? Of course the situation in many places is about as grim as it can be and we should never undermine that fact or indeed stop trying to help. But this is the UK which is supposed to be compassionate and inclusive, where social justice is paramount, where they tell us that we can all enjoy the fruits of democracy and wealth.

So why are some families having to choose between keeping warm and eating?

Ofgem has told energy companies to stop charging customers different rates for different payment methods but those energy bosses need to know that if they do equalise the rates, it won’t be of any use whatsoever to the poorer if they simply raise all the rates. They ought to allow struggling families access to the best deals rather than simply increasing the rates for everyone. And the government needs to provide grants so that every home is properly insulated and energy-efficient. They’ve talked the talk but their words need activating. What are they waiting for? An ice age? Ok, there are grants available so why does fuel poverty still exist? Just this month Friends of the Earth and Help the Aged have launched an appeal against a decision last month by the High court saying that the government has not broken the law over its failure to tackle fuel poverty.

“We believe the Government has acted unlawfully by failing in its legal commitment to end the suffering of fuel poverty. The Government must introduce a massive programme to cut energy waste, slash fuel bills and ensure that people heat their homes and not the planet.”

The government might have won the legal argument because of those ever-so-convenient loopholes but it hasn’t won the moral argument and so once again it’s up to charities and campaign groups to defend our vulnerable members of society.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Way back in the early nineties I worked as an energy adviser in a area of Birmingham with one of the highest levels of fuel poverty. Part of my job was to try and convince the energy companies to adopt a more progressive attitude toward their customers on the lowest incomes. To be honest, some of the attitudes I encountered were shocking. 15 years later it seems like nothing much has changed, apart from soaring energy prices. I can’t help but feel a little disillusioned that after so long there has been no progress, but I’m glad to see that people like you, and Friends of the Earth (and hopefully the National Right to Fuel campaign) are keeping the issue out there on the table.


  2. Hi Debra, yes, it is shocking to know that there has been little progress but as you say, it’s important to raise the debate and keep the issue public.


  3. Posted by Charlotte on November 22, 2008 at 3:27 am

    I can’t see programmes to improve insulation and energy efficiency doing much to help people who rent from private landlords. There’s already money available for improvements through LESA, but the landlords basically don’t care so long as they can get the tenants. With the chronic shortage of social housing and house prices still out of a lot of people’s reach, there’s not likely to be much improvement there.


  4. Hi Charlotte, well said. Good point about the landlords. I don’t have much faith in them either. I know a few people who have been treated appallingly by their landlord. There are supposed to be laws and watchdogs in place to protect the tenant but I haven’t seen any evidence of improvement yet.


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