Posted March 10, 2021
In this guest post Matthew Cole, Chair of Trustees at Fuel Bank Foundation, highlights the findings from Fuel Bank Foundation’s new Fuel Crisis report and the action needed to help stop people living without energy.
A growing number of people are turning to charitable organisations to help heat and light their homes, and over the past five years Fuel Bank Foundation has supported over 400,000 people across Great Britain who are struggling with their energy costs. We support customers of all British energy suppliers, providing same day emergency heat and light to households who prepay for their energy, where when their gas and electricity meters run out of credit, the lights go out and the pilot light is extinguished. We also provide targeted and easy to action advice to give longer term support for sustainable energy use.
Covid-19 has had a real impact on the ability of many people to heat and light their homes.
In May last year research from the Money Advice Trust showed 36% of surveyed callers to National Debtline were falling behind on their energy costs as a result of the outbreak. With the third lockdown well underway, it is likely that this situation is set to worsen for many – especially those with precarious finances and experiences of problem debt.
We’ve witnessed first-hand that impact that the outbreak is having on demand for our services as well. On average, the number of people seeking help with their fuel payments has risen 23% across our Fuel Bank centres, with some centres seeing an increase in demand of more than 300%.
One of the main reasons for the spike is the amount of time people are spending at home due to national lockdown restrictions. This has increased gas and electricity usage and placed additional demand on already stretched household budgets.
We recently launched our Fuel Crisis report providing greater insight into the challenges people in fuel crisis face and the impact Fuel Bank has on peoples’ lives. The results of our survey paint a stark picture of how difficult life currently is for many vulnerable families and individuals. Running out of fuel completely and having meters switched off, or disconnected, is the most extreme situation. The majority of those who end up in this position were or had been borrowing money from friends or family and using emergency credit on their meter. This leaves many who have exhausted their options for support with no choice but to self-disconnect.
Our survey of people who have turned to us for help shows that 89% are currently struggling to top up their gas and/or electricity meters, with 81% struggling with basic household bills, mainly food and water. The majority (82%) said the pandemic and national lockdowns had made them more worried about running out of money to pay for energy - families with children are significantly more likely to worry (92%) than those without (72%).
For people in fuel crisis, prioritising household budgets and rationing gas and electricity is a regular occurrence. Almost all (96%) of survey respondents have had to make the choice between topping up their meter and buying food for their family, and 60% are forced to make that choice on a daily or weekly basis.
91% said they have had to ration heating and hot water, while 80% have had to make the sacrifice between having a cooked meal and relying on cold food instead.
Covid-19 is undoubtedly exacerbating the situation and as the pandemic continues living and financial situations are likely to worsen. Emergency credit that does not have to be repaid, such as that offered through the Fuel Bank scheme, can provide immediate respite and help avoid the risk of disconnection, which can take a while to resolve and leave households without energy for extended periods.
We also know that fuel poverty has a detrimental effect on people’s physical health. For example, living in a cold home increases the risk of serious illness and even death, particularly among the elderly. However, the impact on mental health is less understood.
Our research shows that, as well as ensuring people’s basic physical needs are met (heating, hot water, cooking and cleaning), having access to financial support to pay for gas and electricity also has a positive impact on people’s mental health. 89% of people surveyed said their mental wellbeing had improved following Fuel Bank’s intervention, and85% saying their physical health had also improved.
The people we spoke to mentioned struggling with mental health as a result of money, food and living worries. But, by having their physical wellbeing improved, there was a sense of relief from these worries, even if just in the short term.
We want to reduce the number of households facing fuel crisis – an issue that is currently increasing due to Covid-19. To do this, it is vital that policy makers recognise self-disconnection as a poverty issue and not just an energy issue. It’s also important that the energy sector works to mitigate for the causes of self-disconnection before it happens, and that the Government looks to tackle the issue head on by better understanding the causes of fuel poverty and working across departments to bring in the policy changes needed to make it a thing of the past.
In the meantime we will continue to engage and work collaboratively with stakeholders to drive positive policy change to support this.
Find out more about Fuel Bank Foundation’s Fuel Crisis report here.
Matthew is the Chair of Trustees at Fuel Bank Foundation. He also works as an independent consultant working in and around the energy industry to help companies identify and deliver innovative outcomes for some of their most vulnerable customers. View all posts from Matthew Cole.