Imagine going to bed in the pitch black, avoiding buying new clothes or a new washing machine or sleeping in the sitting room because the bedroom is too cold. This may be the situation for as many as 900,000 households in Scotland who are believed to be in fuel poverty; an estimated 40 per cent of the population who spend 10 per cent or more of their household income on heating their homes.
With wintry weather conditions extending well into late spring, finding money for heating became all the more pertinent for many people.
Ann Lynch, who lives in Clydebank, helped set up Campaign 250 three years ago. The group is calling for measures to end fuel poverty including extending the winter fuel payment to disabled people and people with young children. Almost everyone involved in setting up Campaign 250 has first-hand experience of fuel poverty – including Ann, who, after losing her job at Glasgow City Council 12 years ago, has been unemployed.
Fuel bills rose again last year – with the last of the ‘big six’, E.on, confirming in December it was raising gas prices by more than 9 per cent, electricity by 7.7 per cent and dual fuel by 8.4 per cent, but she criticised in particular the prepayment meters that can leave people without heat and power when the money runs out. “With a pre-payment meter you disconnect yourself,” she said.
“The energy companies will tell you and I know because I’ve had this argument, that they give you an extra £5 – they reckon that gives you a day to top up. But if you’re on benefit and you’ve got no money for a couple of days, which is not unusual when you’re waiting for your giro, you cannot top that up and get cut off so sometimes people go two, three days without electricity.
They call it the ‘blind week’ – they just go to bed.” She estimates that in the last seven years, the cut-off has happened to her up to 18 times.
Her campaign has meant speaking to people in similar circumstances across Scotland and she said that people often feel embarrassed to talk about their experiences. “People don’t like to say they’re poor, they don’t like to say they’re in poverty. It almost feels like they are a victim or that they’ve somehow caused it.
“Certainly the media and daytime television remind us everyday that it is our fault. I think what I’ve managed to do with this is to lift the lid off some of it. I have had stories of a 96-year-old woman and a woman with a new born baby – horror stories.” And the impact goes further than simply having a cold home, she adds: “This only crystallises in your head when you experience it, it affects how you eat – one of the problems with fuel poverty is, when it comes to the winter, healthy eating goes out of the window.
“First of all, the kitchen is too cold to spend any time chopping up veg and peeling potatoes and being involved in turning on ovens and rings when you’re baltic, standing in your hat and scarf and coat, trying to cook potatoes. Even if you did manage to do that, there’s no way you’re going to pay for the additional heating involved in heating up an electric oven, which takes ages.
You are likely to be using three or four rings on your cooker and the meter will just go round and round. At the end of the day, it’s easier to buy cheap microwave meals – cheap food, full of salt and sugar that will ensure you will probably die before you’re 55.” She adds: “It impacts on every bit of your life, you don’t do family bonding. People don’t pop in for a cup of tea, you don’t really want to communicate with people because you don’t actually want to leave your duvet; it’s got all sorts of consequences and affects your mental health.”
Gwen Chrystal, 67, who lives in Pilton, wants to see more action from the UK Government to tackle the ‘big six’ energy companies and stop spiralling prices – she said that she often prefers to sleep in her sitting room, because the bedroom is too cold. She said: “You could keep the heat on for about three or four hours, turn it off and within a couple of hours the thermometer in my room is warning ‘hypothermia’.” Lorraine Carroll, 43, from Old Kilpatrick, found herself in fuel poverty after leaving her job when her daughter Aisha was born two years ago. Aisha was born with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome which has affected her development and means her mum has been unable to return to work.
She said: “The gas is unbelievably extortionate and I find that I’m missing buying some things to provide the heat in my house and it’s really important we have heat because Aisha’s susceptible to chest infections because of her syndrome.” Although she said she would never go without food – particularly as Aisha’s condition means she has to pay extra attention to her diet, she said that in a cold spell, she is constantly checking the Direct Gov website to see if the period has been long enough to qualify for an extra payment.
She has received help and advice from Clydebank Independent Resource Centre, particularly in dealing with her energy provider over a dispute over a large bill.
However, Danny McAfferty, chairman of the centre, said he preferred not to isolate the issue into simply fuel poverty. He said: “If people are poor, this affects all areas. They are forced to choose between fuel poverty, or food poverty or something else – that is no kind of choice to make.”
The total funds allocated to tackle fuel poverty by the Scottish Government in 2012/13 amount to about £200m – with £65m coming in direct payments and the rest from private investment. Much of the concentration is on retrofitting people’s homes to ensure minimum heat loss and so waste as little energy as possible. Experts believe the Government should be spending more and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the Government was “determined to invest as much money as we possibly can”.
In Scotland the Universal Home Insulation Scheme, implemented by local authorities and funded by the Scottish Government, started in 2008 and is due to be replaced by the National Retrofit Programme this year. In the UK, the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) is replacing two other schemes aimed at addressing energy efficiency. The Coalition Government also hopes its Green Deal will give homeowners the chance to carry out retrofitting or insulation work on their homes.
Labour has been calling for a different solution to fuel poverty. Beyond current initiatives, it wants to introduce collective bargaining to switch more people on to cheaper deals with energy companies. North East MSP Jenny Marra originally pushed for the scheme, which has now been picked up by the UK party.
It was launched by shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint at the Labour Party conference last September – and includes Marra’s native Dundee as one of the pilot areas. Based on schemes run in Holland and Belgium, it encourages people to sign up to an intermediary, such as a political party, union, council – or even a church group or sports club.
More than 10,000 signatories have been collected in six weeks, including Labour pilots and other schemes run by Unison and a council in England. It is hoped the price for energy that they will get, collectively, will be far less than what is currently on offer. Marra reports that when run in Belgium, the scheme saw people save 30 per cent.
She said: “The beauty of it is for us is that somebody like me, who can afford maybe to pay inflated energy costs but doesn’t necessarily want to, by signing up, I’m potentially helping to get a better price for somebody who can lesser afford higher energy bills as well. Ed Miliband has said that if he’s returned to government in Westminster he will regulate the energy markets – we’re not in a position to do that for at least another three years. For me, this is a good project that we can use the power in our communities, the power of people coming together and acting together to actually make a difference.”
Norman Kerr, director of Energy Action Scotland, said: “Collective switching or purchasing for gas and electricity is certainly an option to explore for some communities. The idea of a ‘co-operative’ approach to bulk purchasing is not necessarily a new idea, but it is new to the energy market.
Energy Action Scotland would welcome any move which would ultimately reduce consumers’ bills, but like everything else, there is a need to make sure it is the right deal for you or your community.
“Some recent energy auctions have shown that the smaller supplier can sometimes provide reduced bills. However, the downside here is that those customers who would be eligible to receive subsidy via the Warm Home Discount might no longer receive it, as the smaller suppliers are likely to have a limited number of customers and so be exempt from this scheme.
“By moving to such a supplier with a collective purchasing scheme, a customer might save, for example, £100 but would lose £130 from the Warm Home Discount Scheme. This equates to a bad move for that customer overall.”