When we talk about fuel poverty, what does it mean? When I am asked this by friends or people I meet, I usually say – you know, when people can’t afford to heat their homes. I usually get a nod of understanding and then a story of their problems with their energy supplier, energy debt they’ve got into, high bills, not being able to keep warm, problems with switching; everybody has their own story to tell.
But “fuel poverty” is a bigger and wider issue than being unable to afford your energy bills. It’s about the condition of the walls, roof and windows (the fabric) of your house or flat, it’s about high energy prices, it’s about how much money you have and it’s about how you use energy in your home.
There are official statistics for fuel poverty in Scotland. In 2016, 649,000 (or 26.5%) households were in fuel poverty, but the real figure could be much higher. At the moment, the definition for being in fuel poverty is spending more than 10% of your income on all household fuel use. This definition will soon be changing. In fact there will be a lot of changes this year to the fuel poverty landscape in Scotland, with a Warm Homes Bill, a fuel poverty strategy and routemaps being produced. But what does this mean for the person on the street? What do they do, how will they be helped?
That person, if they are lucky, may be helped through some of the Scottish Government’s fuel poverty schemes, which help to install energy efficiency measures, such as insulation or boilers in people’s homes. However that person can be helped only if they are eligible, such as being on certain benefits or living in a certain area. Some of the help available is through loans, and the person would have to pay them off afterwards, which could increase household debt and stress.
If that person isn’t lucky enough to qualify for one of the schemes, what can they do? Maybe their situation gets so bad, that their health gets affected negatively and they seek help by going to see their doctor. Again, they may be lucky and get a doctor who is able to spend more time with them and be able to identify what is wrong and signpost them onto an agency who can help, or perhaps the doctor is too busy and it gets missed. Perhaps this person decides they have to do something and goes to a citizens advice bureau or local advice agency and is then directed to sources of advice and support.
But what about those too ill, too sick, too weary, not knowing, not understanding of what is out there, and available to them?
Yes, that’s the problem! There are people in Scotland termed “hard to reach” – those who work in this field talk about finding and identifying the fuel poor. It is difficult and there are still people out there in the population, hiding under the radar. There is also the stigma and shame of being seen to be on benefits and this applies too to the fuel poverty schemes. We often hear that the help available is not for me it’s for poor people or there is a catch it can’t be free, you get nothing for nothing these days.
There are organisations willing and able to help. EAS is one of these. We can help by challenging Governments, highlighting how policies affect vulnerable people, influencing those policies and the folks who make the decisions about them our MSPs and MPs. We train front line workers in identifying signs of fuel poverty in those they work with, carry out research to identify the solutions and set up projects to help people.
An example of a recently completed project was the Aiming Beyond Cancer (ABC) project. We supported, via two member organisations, people who were having difficulty keeping warm at home at a price they could afford due to cancer. Often for those with cancer, energy bills can go up as patients remain at home during treatment and recovery (often meaning that their income levels fall too), as well as the physiological effects of cancer requiring that they stay warmer. ABC provided a practical means of ensuring that at a particularly stressful time, energy bills and keeping warm were one less thing for cancer patients and their families to worry about.
See our website for further information www.eas.org.uk