Blog: When winter comes, a cold wind of fuel poverty will blow …

30 June 2020

In the aftermath of Covid-19, Ian Preston, our Head of Household Energy Services, predicts a difficult winter both for the people who depend on welfare services and the service providers themselves

The past three months have sometimes felt like a surreal dream. And now as we creep tentatively out of lockdown, I’m struck by how different people’s experience of the pandemic has been so varied. As others have put it: “Same storm, different boats”.

For those in a less sturdy boat, there are tempestuous times ahead, and the services CSE’s team of energy advisors provide to the vulnerable and less well-off will be needed more than ever.

And so far, in providing fuel poverty support and energy resilience advice during the Covid-19 crisis, I’ve never been prouder of my team.

They’ve always been amazing, of course. They help thousands of people a year and are sometimes the ray of sunlight in the darkness that makes the day bearable for our clients. But in the last three months they’ve really excelled themselves.

First off, we had to move an entire advice service (delivered by 30 people) to home working – phone lines, secure databases, the lot. And we did it in under 10 days. We kept the service open and embraced the change. It's different - no doubt about that. In the office we can support each other when dealing with some complex and upsetting enquiries; at home we've lost that peer-to-peer support, though we’re doing all we can to to connect with each other virtually. And home working has also made it harder to give advice as a team to our clients.

And secondly, during lockdown the volume and severity of cases we deal with has increased, particularly in terms of the financial and mental health challenges that our clients are experiencing.

Take Mr F, a client in Bath who we contacted through Western Power Distribution’s Power-Up service; CSE’s Ed Divers handled the call. Mr F has type 1 diabetes so is shielding at home and the issue he first sought help with was food delivery - he struggles to access food suitable to someone with his health condition. After signposting Mr F to the council’s community support hub, Ed asked how he is managing his bills and Mr F disclosed that a number of them, including electricity, were extremely overdue. As the call progressed it became clear that Mr F – who at one point expressed that he would be “better off dead” - was struggling and finding lockdown extremely challenging despite the brave face he was putting on. In line with some recent training, Ed found appropriate mental health support locally.

I fully expect that we’re going to see more cases like Mr F in the next few months, as there are gaping holes in the welfare safety net caused by the current exceptional circumstances.

One issue will be the repayment of deferred energy bills. During the emergency all energy suppliers put in measures to support customers – payment ‘holidays’, no cut-offs and so on. But this isn’t free money; the energy companies will recoup this money, either through deferred payments or by taking it out of the customer’s Warm Homes Discount. This will exacerbate hardship at the worst time; when energy bills are higher and the expected recession has started to bite. One supplier has told me that they have deferred £8m of payments from 40,000 customers.

The debt charity StepChange recently revealed “a personal debt tsunami” of £6bn directly attributable to the pandemic is already being stored up among 4.6 million households. This burden of debt will slow down any economic recovery and impose an unprecedented burden on advice services, including ours.

In 2019-20, CSE supported 10,093 households with energy advice. We estimate this will rise by a third. And the increase in case complexity has already lead to advisors spending some 40% more time on each client.

In the words of one advisor, Will, “More and more of our calls are from vulnerable clients and those in extreme fuel poverty who are isolated and impoverished by the effects of Covid-19 on their jobs, health and families. We’re increasingly seeing multiple deprivations - inadequate housing, potential homelessness, mental and physical health issues, loneliness, debt, job insecurity, low-income and energy supplier issues. Clients often need emotional support as well as energy advice.”

Another advisor, Elliott, agrees: “We still get calls for basic energy advice, but social support and signposting to other services are more frequent now. But many of these are facing unprecedented demand - Age UK and befriending services are a good examples. It sometimes feels like there’s nowhere to point the client towards if they’re lonely and isolated; you end up giving out the phone numbers of local support groups and hope that they can pick up some of the pieces.”

This winter we expect to see much higher rates of self-disconnection, greater levels of energy debt and worsening mental health among our clients. We need the Government to act urgently to put measures in place to make sure advice services aren’t overwhelmed and ensure that people can access the financial support they need.

We are recommending:

  • A significant programme of fuel poverty debt relief (not deferral) so that no one has to make the choice between eating and heating.
  • Rapid roll-out of large-scale energy efficiency programmes which would also deliver a green economic stimulus e.g. retrofitting of people’s homes and improved heating systems.
  • Urgent delivery of Government promises on tackling fuel poverty, such as an extension of the Warm Home Discount, the introduction of the promised Home Upgrade Grants, and a social housing decarbonisation programme.
  • Immediate steps to improve and enforce energy standards in the private rented sector, alongside improved security and affordability for private tenants.

Bleak? Yes, sorry about that ...

We have adapted our advice to better support our clients during the pandemic. If you live in the South West of England and would like advice on any of the following  topping up your prepayment meter, water or energy bills, debt, benefits, housing, food banks or food delivery, prescriptions, befriending services  please complete the referral form on this page and we'll be in touch .

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