Fuel Poverty affects older people, especially pensioners with low incomes, in a massive and detrimental way. We need to keep in mind that older people stay at home for longer. They are often not in the position to keep warm at work or other places. They move around less so they get colder more easily – and quite often they are not aware of this because as you get older your body gauges are not so efficient.
I am one of those people – I am scared to turn my heating on so I wrap myself in blankets to keep warm. I stay in bed, or turn my settee into a cosy space but it doesn't make me feel good. I'm asthmatic so I pick up infections easily. I take longer to get better – because I can't keep warm. I also tend to stay in the one room so the rest of my house is damp through lack of use which obviously doesn’t help.
I am only grateful that I am not one of the people who has a Pre-Payment Meter (PPM). In 2015/16, the Competition and Marketing Authority acknowledged that those who use PPMs pay more for their fuel than those who pay by Direct Debit. And on top of the higher bills, if the meter runs out - which happens to my neighbours a lot - people not only cannot keep warm but there is no light, no television, no ability to charge a phone and the fridge will defrost.
Older people are in a particularly precarious position. Many of us live in old buildings that are badly insulated (although new ones can be too!) and draughty. Very often we have low incomes. In fact, those who receive Pension Credit are the lucky ones in that they are automatically eligible for the Warm Homes Discount scheme that gives £140 towards their winter bills. However, this only applies to some. If you are with the Big Six suppliers who charge the highest rates, you may be eligible for this discount but many of the smaller and greener companies are not members of the scheme. Older people who have signed up for greener fuel will not be able to access the Warm Homes Discount.
In the winter of 2017 to 2018, there were 28% more deaths from circulatory diseases compared with non-winter months, which accounted for nearly a quarter of all Excess Winter Deaths.
In fact, last winter was the worst for excess deaths in England and Wales for more than four decades,
Surprisingly heat can also be a big problem. Last year, deaths rose by 650 above average during the UK heat wave. Don’t forget, if your electricity PPM has run out, you cannot even use a fan!
The way our fuel is priced at the moment needs to change urgently so that it is fairer - not just to older people but to everyone. Right now, we have a system whereby energy costs are priced so that the more we use, the less we pay per unit.
We are penalised for using less. That system is outdated and needs to change.
What needs to change?
If we create a fairer system based on the less we use, the less we pay, the end result would not only mean that those with difficult circumstances are more able to cope, but the wastefulness that is encouraged by the 'use more, pay less' system would stop. In turn that would help to save the planet.
Fuel Poverty Action is an organisation that works to help those with fuel problems, no matter how large or small. In 2014, we developed an Energy Bill of Rights that was supported by Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell as well as many relevant groups. We also have a Mini Guide that provides information on legal rights when dealing with energy or heat suppliers as well as landlords. We are presently working on a proposal for a universal energy policy. For now we are calling it the "Warm Floor Policy" and it is based on either a free or very low-priced system of paying for the a certain amount of fuel to meet our basic needs. It is intended to give security to 'the little person'.
We are interested in what people think of this. Do you have any ideas that might help to work out a better way? What are your views on means-tested benefits? Any ideas on best protection? We'd be glad to hear from you – you can join our mailing list or even sign up as a Friend of Fuel Poverty Action. Or we may be able to send a speaker to your pensioners' group. Please see: www.fuelpovertyaction.org.uk or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diane Skidmore is a Fuel Poverty Action member.
Have you been affected by any of these issues?
If you have been affected by any of the issues described in this blog, or simply need someone to reach out to, you can call Independent Age’s freephone Helpline for information and advice on 0800 319 6789.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Independent Age.