Government estimates put the number of homes affected by fuel poverty at more than 2 million but Ruth Patrick finds out why disabled people are more likely to be affected financially and physically.
Last winter, there were 43,900 excess winter deaths in England and Wales: the highest figure since 1999. On the day that these figures were announced, the campaigning group Fuel Poverty Action staged a protest in the House of Commons chanting ‘No more deaths from fuel poverty’. The protestors took part in what they describe as a ‘warm up’: a chance to quite literally get warm in the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons and highlight the fact that so many cannot afford to adequately heat their own homes. While all the excess winter deaths cannot be attributed to fuel poverty, there are real risks to the health and wellbeing of older people, families and disabled people who struggle and live with the day-to-day reality of fuel poverty.
A person used to be said to be in fuel poverty when more than 10% of their income went on their fuel costs, but the Government has recently revised the way in which it is measured.
The Government estimates that there are 2.3 million households living in fuel poverty, but many charities and campaign organisations argue that the real figure is much higher. Simon Hopkins, Chief Executive of charity Turn2Us explained why they recently launched a campaign against fuel poverty: ‘No more cold homes’:
“With colder winter weather around the corner, we are extremely concerned for the households who can’t afford to keep their homes warm and are forced to go without other basic essentials.
Unfortunately, disabled people are disproportionately likely to live in fuel poverty because they are more likely both to live on low incomes and also to face higher than average energy costs.
Research suggests that the number of disabled people living in fuel poverty is much higher than official government figures might suggest. One of the authors of the research, Carolyn Snell from the University of York explains:
“Our research indicates that the number of fuel poor households that contain disabled people are underestimated in official statistics. This is because under the current definition of fuel poverty, energy needs, often higher for disabled people, are under underestimated, whilst incomes may be exaggerated due to the treatment of disability benefits such as Disability Living Allowance (DLA) as general disposable income.”
In their research, Snell and her co-authors argue that the additional income many disabled people receive via DLA and its replacement Personal Independence Payments should not be included as income for calculating fuel poverty, as these benefits are meant to help meet the extra costs of impairments, and so do not represent income in the usual sense.
Disabled people often have particularly high energy costs, due to perhaps needing a higher temperature in their homes (because of reduced mobility for example) or if living with health conditions that are aggravated by cold weather. Further, disabled people not currently working may spend more time indoors, and so need the heat on for more of the day than those who are elsewhere and can make use of heat provided by offices, schools, colleges and so on. A survey by Turn2Us found high levels of fuel poverty even among disabled people in work, with 67% of those surveyed reporting difficulty in meeting their energy costs.
Debbie Jones lives in Derbyshire with her husband who works six days a week. Debbie has Rheumatoid Arthritis, but receives only limited benefits as she has a private pension from her years working as a nurse. She dreads and feared winter’s arrival:
“It’s frightening when winter comes. It’s quite depressing knowing it is coming and I don’t look forward to it at all. I’m treated for depression, and this is all linked to worry about money and not being able to afford to heat my home.”
Debbie’s experience of fuel poverty means she often simply goes without:
“Because of the cost I don’t have the heating on much at all. I do have access to central heating and a fire in the front room, but I tend to keep the heating off and just to rely on blankets and lots of layers. It has to be literally snowing for me to put the heating on in the day. We just can’t afford it. When my husband gets home from work we sometimes have the heating on, but just for an hour or so in the evening. There is a point though when I know my legs are going to get stiffer because it’s so cold and I won’t be able to mobilise, and then I do have to put the heating on, even if it’s just to blast my house for an hour.”
Debbie is quite literally rationing her heating use, in ways that are having only negative consequences for her own health and wellbeing. This rationing of heat mirrors the experience of Cath, a woman living with complex health needs who describes creative ways in which she tries to keep warm during the winter months:
“Instead of using the heating if you put your electric blanket on for half an hour it heats the bed. It’s pointless heating the room and then getting into a cold bed. Better off going into a cold room, getting in a warm bed.”
Like Debbie, Cath copes with the colder months by ‘getting under the blankets’ rather than putting the heating on.
The lived realities of fuel poverty for disabled people are a pertinent reminder of the extent and shape of poverty and deprivation that so many people in our society face. Sadly, for disabled people this poverty is often worsening as the Government presses ahead with its programme of welfare reform. Dr Snell highlighted how welfare reform contributed to the problem of fuel poverty for disabled people:
“Disabled people of working age have been particularly affected by austerity measures. One response to a drop in household income is to ration energy use, given that this is a ‘flexible’ outgoing. Where a disabled person needs a certain heating regime or amount of energy in order to manage a particular condition or impairment, and these needs are not met, the results may be extremely damaging.”
In rationing her heating use, Debbie and her husband faced the classic ‘heat or eat’ dilemma during the colder months, cutting down their food bills to try to manage the additional heating costs they faced:
“We eat less in winter than in summer because of the higher heating costs. We will eat a lot of soups and stews because they’re cheaper to make.”
There is a particular issue for those disabled people who use a pre-payment meter to pay for their energy costs, which will see them pay on average £226 a year more than those on the cheapest direct debit tariff. While it is illegal for energy companies to disconnect vulnerable customers during the winter, they can forcibly install a pre-payment meter as part of a response to customer debt. There is evidence that some customers than ‘voluntarily’ self-disconnect from their pre-payment meter by not topping up their credit, and so leave themselves without power or fuel.
Despite disabled people being disproportionately likely to face fuel poverty, there is a relative absence of support available for them to meet the additional fuel costs that they so often face. Disability Now requested a comment from the Department for Energy and Climate Change on measures to support disabled people living in fuel poverty but no one was available. Instead, they provided a list of measures aimed at addressing fuel poverty in general. Tellingly, top of the list was ‘keeping bills down for hardworking families’, while disabled people were not explicitly mentioned at any point in the measures detailed.
Schemes such as the Warm Homes Discount Scheme, which provide discounts on energy bills, are sometimes but not always available for disabled people. Indeed, there is a noted bias towards support with energy costs for older people with no government schemes targeted particularly at disabled people. Debbie thinks this is a mistake:
“I have not been offered any help or been given any support with my heating costs. Old people qualify for a winter fuel payment. I think that perhaps people on DLA should get it too. A lot of disabled people need to keep warm; and when you’re stuck in one place you do get colder more quickly.”
The extent of fuel poverty in one of the richest countries in the world is a scandal. And fuel poverty in `Britain today which sees disabled people like Debbie and Cath unable to get warm in their own front rooms should be urgently addressed.