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Opinion

Energy crisis shines a light on fuel poverty impacting millions of families

Beyond the news of energy suppliers going bust are millions of people facing disaster, says Simon Francis of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition.

The energy crisis has brought into the open a hidden crisis affecting millions of households across the country.

The headlines may focus on energy firms going bust, but going beyond the headlines reveals the public cost of a broken energy system.

Millions of people every year face the dilemma between heating their home and putting food on their tables. This is called fuel poverty in the UK and the numbers of families affected are drastically increasing.

This is a hidden problem because people don’t like to talk about their financial woes and struggling to pay the bills is stigmatised. But fuel poverty is not just caused by low incomes.

High wholesale energy prices and poor energy efficiency of homes are also to blame. And these factors are totally outside of the average household’s control.

Where wholesale energy prices rise, consumer prices follow, usually with a six month lag due to a government controlled ‘price capping’ process.

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On October 1, this price cap goes up and we will see almost half a million additional households realise they can’t pay their bills.

The mantra of the media is that everyone needs to switch deals. But for many on pre-pay meters or who are not digitally savvy, this is just not possible.

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In addition, switching suppliers is not a guarantee of saving money. A cold winter means needing to have the heating on more, resulting in an increase in the total bill. It is just the unit cost of gas or electricity that is fixed.

So the latest rises in wholesale prices means that we face the possibility of more households struggling to stay warm at home than ever before.

And with fuel poverty comes increased risks of suffering the worst effects of respiratory illnesses, such as Covid-19.

When combined with the increase in general prices caused by inflation and Brexit supply issues, we face the real possibility of fuel poverty levels increasing drastically.

The universal credit cut will also have a drastic impact. As Fraser Stewart from the University of Strathclyde has pointed out, those on universal credit have gone from barely coping to increasing debt by £100 a month when you combine the impact of rising energy costs and the cut.

And, as The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign has highlighted, this could have catastrophic implications for people right across the country.

Time is very quickly running out for governments across the UK to act.

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There must be urgent financial support put in place to ensure people don’t have to choose between heating and eating this winter, meanwhile governments also need to rapidly deploy programmes to improve the energy efficiency of homes.

Only through a combined package of measures can we prevent the autumn energy crisis leading to people entering a winter wilderness of poverty.

Simon Francis is a campaigner and co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition.

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