The cold truth
Even at the height of summer, Frances Connor says she is still thinking about winter.
Although the sun may be shining and weather much warmer, she knows that months later, the temperatures will plummet once more and she will have to switch the heating on again.
Like hundreds of thousands across Scotland, Frances admits she is scared to turn the heating on as she knows keeping her flat warm will put a huge strain on her finances.
“I dread the winter,” she says. “The bills have gone sky high, it’s far too much and it’s getting worse.”
Nearly five years ago Frances was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
After an operation and six months of chemotherapy, she found she had peripheral neuropathy – leaving her hands and feet numb and susceptible to the cold – it also meant she had to give up her job as a home carer.
She admits that the first thought when she was diagnosed was “how am I going to pay my bills? How long am I going to be off my work?” It wasn’t until later that the cancer diagnosis started to sink in.
With her cancer now in remission, although with two more years of check-ups to go, the 54-year-old of Easterhouse says she has no chance of returning to her old job.
And while she has received help through GHeat – the Glasgow Home Energy Advice Team – which gives her £135 off her electricity and has been given help and one-to-one counselling from Macmillan Cancer Support, she still says heating her home is the thing she is most worried about.
“The help from GHeat means I can put a wee bit extra into my heating. I keep it low but enough to keep warm, ideally I should have it up higher, but I can’t.
“I can’t pay the bills because the prices have rocketed.”
She adds: “I try to pay extra in the summer, so in the winter I’ve got that and the extra from GHeat, plus I wrap up with big covers and my dressing gown.”
Her housing association flat is insulated but, she says, still draughty and she only heats the one room to save costs.
“When you are on chemotherapy, the first day when you get the intravenous you’re left with pins and needles in your fingers and feet – even touching your face is like somebody jagging you with needles.
“When I finished my treatment in October 2010, they said it was very unlikely it would leave me – and I’ve still got it.”
“In the winter my feet are like blocks of ice so you’ve got to burn up more heating. It’s terrible when people are scared to put the heating on to keep themselves warm in this day and age.”
‘Fuel poverty’ is believed to affect as many as 900,000 people across the country, but Macmillan Cancer Support has been running a campaign directly looking at the link between cancer patients and heating bills.
Frances says that without the help the charity offered, including advice on how to get her on the right energy tariff, counselling and helping her claim the correct benefits, things would be worse.
A decade ago research from the charity revealed the best part of £130m in benefits was going unclaimed from those who had a terminal diagnosis alone, raising concerns that people who were falling deep into debt as a result of fighting their illness.
As well as building up support and advice for cancer patients to advise them on claiming benefits and other means of support, Macmillan also offered £10m of grants for patients and their families across the UK.
According to Macmillan, one in four people having cancer treatment struggle to pay their energy bills, and nearly one in five people living with cancer turn their heat off even though they feel cold, with six out of 10 having higher bills since diagnosis.
General manager for Scotland, Allan Cowie, said that a large number of the applications for financial help in Scotland cited the need to pay their heating bills as the reason for claiming.
“If someone had a cancer diagnosis and they’d been through treatment, whether it is chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery, they’re going to be living at home, their bodies will be more attuned to temperature in their house and there is a need to make sure that people are warm and supported when they’ve been through that.
“Increasingly, what we’ve found is what people are really worried about, the focus is off themselves and onto the social and financial implications that go with the diagnosis – which is just madness.”
Macmillan’s benefits advisers are trained to City and Guilds level to help explain to people about how to heat their homes properly.
Cowie added: “At a time when you’re diagnosed with cancer, we need to make sure they have access to the finances to pay their bills and they’re not worried about turning the heat on because of the impact it will have on their finances.”
While the lessons are true for cancer, they apply also to other long-term illnesses and Cowie said it was important that the work Macmillan carries out, including its benefits advice, should be able to be applied elsewhere.
“The reality is, I’m sure you could point to a whole range of people who are living with chronic or lifelong disease who, because of the nature of their ailment, can’t work or are maybe out of work for periods when there’s the exacerbation of a condition.
“For me, cancer is a bit of that world in a microcosm,” he said.
The issue of fuel poverty has escalated in the last year, with parties across the political spectrum recognising that it was a top priority.
Having already talked about reform of Ofgem, Ed Miliband set out Labour’s plans to tackle the big energy companies when he spoke at the party’s Autumn Conference, promising a future government led by his party would cap energy prices.
While the Coalition Government sought to reduce the pressure on fuel bills by £50, by removing some of the green levies funding energy-efficiency measures, the SNP’s proposal was allowing energy companies to reduce their fuel bills by about £70 per year, but fully funding fuel poverty measures of £200m from the general coffers.
When announcing her plans at the SNP conference, which would only be brought in if there is a Yes vote next year, Nicola Sturgeon said: “Right now, the Scottish Government invests around £80m a year on energy-efficiency schemes to help meet our climate change targets and lower the costs of energy bills.
“A further £120 million comes from a scheme designed in Westminster, operated through energy companies and paid for by a levy on your gas and electricity bills.
“It is a disjointed approach, it doesn’t take account of Scottish priorities and it’s not as efficient as it could be.”
In November the National Audit Office warned that consumers UK-wide faced 17 more years of price hikes.
All of the big six energy companies have announced price rises this year, with E.On announcing its intention to raise bills by an average of 3.7 per cent after Chancellor George Osborne had confirmed the measures he hoped would lower costs to the consumer.
E.On’s increase will take effect from 18 January, adding £48 a year to the average dual fuel bill.
Elizabeth Gore, Deputy Director of fuel poverty charity Energy Action Scotland, said it was time to take a serious look at the rising cost of energy.
She said: “Customers are no doubt thinking that it is a case of ‘giving with the right and taking with the left’.
“There needs now to be serious and ongoing discussions about how to bring energy bills to a more reasonable level.
“Those discussions must include how the wholesale market operates and how to reduce energy demand significantly through better energy efficiency.”
The most recent Scottish Government figures for people living in fuel poverty showed that the number of households had dropped from 721,000 in 2011 to 647,000 in 2012 – 27.1 per cent of the population.
EAS said it was surprised by the news as prices are rarely out of the media spotlight and budgets are constantly under pressure.
The organisation marked its 30th anniversary this year. Since it was formed, programmes such as the Universal Home Insulation Scheme and Home Energy Efficiency Programme have been introduced.
At the organisation’s conference in Clydebank, Director Norman Kerr looked back to 1983 and said in 2012 prices, a typical gas bill was £700 and £560 for electricity and debate was rife in the House of Commons on the adverse impact of energy price rises.
“It seems that 30 years on, this is a nut that has definitely not been cracked,” he said.
He added: “I hate the fact that, in this day and age, we are effectively forcing people into making the choice of a warm meal or a warm home, making them choose between heating and eating.
“I hate the fact that as a nation we actually feel the need to record excess winter deaths and attribute a proportion of these to people living in cold, damp homes.
“Homes that make families ill, homes that bring only misery to those who are forced to live in them.
“I hate the human suffering and misery that fuel poverty brings.”