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To Heat or to Eat, That Should Never Be the Question

Posted: 28/10/2013 17:49

The Big Six energy companies are piling on the agony for hard-pressed customers - i.e all of us - with a series of eye-watering price rises. It is always someone else's fault, of course - usually "factors outside their control", whatever that might mean.

SSE, British Gas, npower and now Scottish Power have already announced increases that bear no relation to the income prospects of consumers. As winter approaches, it will not only be benefits and wages that will be frozen. Real people are facing real agonies over whether to heat or eat. Indeed, some recipients of emergency supplies from food banks are so poor they're returning tinned goods that require cooking because they can't afford the power to heat the food.

So what is to be done to help customers who are struggling to make sense of it all, even down to understanding their bills?

The prospect of action at the top seems limited.

David Cameron's suggestion that customers should switch energy supplier to secure a better deal has an increasingly hollow ring to it when it is obvious that by the end of the autumn all the major suppliers will have done pretty much the same thing. Energy supply is effectively in the hands of a tiny group of all-powerful suppliers. Some even call it a cartel.

Ed Miliband has pledged a 20-month prize freeze under a Labour administration, but how he would stop the energy companies turning the screw before and after such a hiatus is unclear.

A more radical approach comes from Clare Welton of Fuel Poverty Action, who says: "Until energy is not-for-profit and under the ownership of the public and communities, we will continue to be at the sharp edge of profit-hungry companies and ever-increasing global fossil fuel prices."

Worryingly, George Osborne has let it be known that the Energy Company Obligation, a levy to generate financial support for energy efficiency in poorer households, is being targeted for cuts or delays to reduce the government 'take' from consumer bills. Ironically, the ECO is acknowledged to be the only policy that is helping to cut fuel bills for the poorest.

Jenny Saunders, chief executive of National Energy Action, says: "The main reason our energy bills are so high is because we have some of the most energy-inefficient housing stock in Europe. It is vital we use ECO funds to improve heating and insulation for our poorest citizens."

Meanwhile, working with communities, organisations like Groundwork are offering solutions to the growing number of people in - or at risk of falling into - fuel poverty.

The problem for many families is that they do not know where to turn for help. There is inherent suspicion of the motives of energy companies, the government and local authorities. A consequence is that even where support is available, take-up is low in the areas that need it most. This is plain daft.

Faced with a toxic mix of poor quality housing stock, low incomes and soaring bills, Groundwork is taking a stand. We are independent, we are known and trusted in the communities where we work and we deliver what we promise.

In the year to September, our Green Doctors and other energy efficiency advisers made more than 18,000 visits to households across the country to offer impartial help and advice. Simple measures like fitting draught excluders, radiator reflectors and power-down devices for electrical equipment can make a big difference. Finding a path through the maze of tariffs can also save pounds, but often only after a trusted expert has helped to show the way. This has the potential to help hard-pressed households across the country.

Definitions of fuel poverty are changing, but the realities are constant. While the hand-wringing continues among the great and good, the fact remains: a rich and civilised country like Britain should be able to ensure that its people have warm homes and the means to keep them that way. We should hang our heads in shame until we can do that.

 

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