Cold comfort for vulnerable U.K. energy consumers


London, U.K. — (METERING.COM) — September 12, 2008 – With U.K. home energy bills at a record high and a failure to agree on how to tackle fuel poverty, some groups of consumers are employing dangerous strategies to cope with higher bills.

In a new review from the gas and electricity consumer watchdog, energywatch, it was found that pensioner households and those with prepayment meters tend to ration their use of fuel, sometimes to the extent of self-disconnecting, while lone parents often go without food or lighting in order to keep their children warm and fed. In addition it was found that younger consumers or those with children are more likely to go into debt, rather than under-heat their homes, in order to cope.

“The review indicates that different household groups make very different types of choices to deal with fuel poverty,” says its author, Damon Gibbons, head of local partnerships at the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion.

These then have impacts on welfare falling into three main groups, according to the review – on physical health, mental health, and on relationships both within the household and externally. For example, pensioners who under-heat their homes are at greater risk of cardiovascular and respiratory problems, while for lone parents there will be long term problems associated with poor nutrition. For young families the stress of debt is strongly associated with relationship breakdown and depression.

The review, entitled “Cold Comfort”, says that household responses to fuel poverty are complex, with attitudes and experience playing as much of a role in determining the coping strategies that households employ as their financial circumstances. Whilst fuel poverty presents hard choices for many low income households, the actual choices that are made vary according to a range of factors including age, experience, and household composition, in particular the presence of children and/or household members with disability or long term illness.

It is apparent from the literature that the ways in which these factors determine the coping strategies that are employed have not been explored in depth and that further research is required. Part of that future research should be used to establish and test a framework capable of investigating both the emotional and practical responses to fuel poverty and of looking at the underlying reasons for these. It is also apparent that some groups of fuel poor households, including private tenants and households in rural areas, have also been under-researched in recent years.

“This review makes it plain that an increasing numbers of consumers are faced with the choice of three evils when it comes to coping with high energy prices; stay cold, eat less, or go into debt,” says Adam Scorer, energywatch director of campaigns.

“But, the review also shows how understanding the actual experience of consumers can help a wide range of agencies anticipate and support households in fuel poverty.” 

energywatch is calling for industry and government to mandate minimum standards for social tariffs to make energy more affordable for households in greatest need and to coordinate a program of research to gain a comprehensive understanding of the consequences of fuel poverty and of best practice in supporting fuel poor households and to use this to help inform a fuel poverty strategy. In addition a national database of fuel poor households should be created to help agencies and industry target assistance and support and to build on the extra services and support provided by energy companies to priority consumers.