Many viewers of Channel 4’s recent ‘Dispatches’ documentary on child poverty were shocked by the level of hardship endured by the families that were said to represent the 4m households suffering from poverty in the UK.
Several hard-to-watch scenes were widely shared on social media, including that of two young kids putting on coats to keep warm at bedtime and another showing an eight-year-old girl raiding her piggy bank to help her mum top up the meter.
Such broadcasts are purposely designed to tug on our heart strings, but they probably do more to highlight the struggle that too many families have in paying their fuel bills than the dry statistics that are periodically issued by government on the latest fuel poverty numbers.
That said, some of the numbers are equally distressing. The Office of National Statistics recently released figures revealing that 23,200 extra people died in England and Wales during the last winter (compared to the rest of the year) and of those 30% are estimated to be because their home was too cold.
As the charity National Energy Action points out, such numbers are an “annual badge of shame”.
Longer-term solutions are needed unless we are willing to accept a certain level of fatalities every year.
What can be done?
With energy prices only going in one direction, most experts predict that more people will be falling into the fuel poverty bracket unless action is taken.
But when lives are on the line, can we afford to wait while the government seeks to get interested parties around a committee table and ponders on a long-term strategy?
Responding to the challenge, the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE) is calling on the industry to do all it can to help prevent avoidable winter deaths.
The Institute proposes that installers can play a part by both providing advice on ways to manage fuel consumption and also by ensuring that their more vulnerable customers get the assistance they need from the relevant authorities.
While no one is suggesting that they become an extension of the social services, plumbing and heating engineers are in the privileged position of being invited into private homes on a regular basis and are therefore well placed to recognise if someone might need a helping hand.
If they’re unable to provide assistance themselves, they can at least point them in the direction of where help might be found.
Fuel Banks are one place where those in need might seek short-term financial support. A sign of the time perhaps, but it’s a project that started four years ago in response to the growing number of people faced with the dilemma of spending their limited income on heat or food.
Currently running alongside 31 foodbanks around the UK, the Fuel Bank will provide a top up voucher for two weeks’ worth of fuel to clients with a prepayment meter, providing some breathing space when they might otherwise have no access to energy.
It is estimated that over 100,000 people have already benefitted from access to these funds, but is that a statistic the country should be proud of?
An urgent response is clearly required when vulnerable customers and young families are struggling for warmth, but longer-term solutions are needed unless we are willing to accept a certain level of fatalities every year.
Embracing more energy efficient, sustainable heating technology, together with better insulated housing, is an obvious way to reduce fuel consumption and spiraling energy bills, but a national heating upgrade can only be achieved at considerable cost.
So what price tag should we put on our health and well-being? If economics are the main concern, there is a case to be made about potential savings for the National Health Service.
According to the Building Research Establishment, the consequence of Brits having to live in cold, damp homes, and the increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory and rheumatoid conditions, costs the NHS £1.4 billion a year.
Add this financial reward to the benefits of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels – and taking a significant step toward carbon emission targets – then it’s hard to understand why the new Boris Johnson government wouldn’t make the eradication of fuel poverty a top priority.