8 Aug 2013

Fuel poverty: millions paying more than they can afford

There’s a new measure for fuel poverty – but it still shows millions of English households face a growing gap between the energy bills they need to pay and what they can afford.

The government has brought in a new way of measuring fuel poverty based on the shortfall between fuel bills and what people can afford to pay. That gap now stands at £438 – a rise of £200 compared with a decade ago.

The widening gap shows families are still being squeezed between rising bills and falling incomes. In 2011, according to the latest figures available, just under 2.4m households in England were struggling to meet those basic costs.

The number has stayed fairly steady over the last ten years, but the shortfall between what people can afford, and what they have to pay, has almost doubled, to a total of more than £1bn.

Under the new measure, fewer households are defined as being in fuel poverty than under the old method, which registered some 3.2 million people who had to pay more than 10 per cent of their income to heat their homes adequately.

However, the government insisted the new figures reflected a more useful approach to tackling the problem, by focusing on the lowest income families in the “worst” and least fuel efficient homes.

Energy minister Michael Fallon insisted it would “help get support to the most vulnerable in society”, and called on the big six energy companies to make sure the poorest households were not trapped on expensive tarrifs.

However anti-poverty campaigners say the impact on people already trying their best to budget on a shoestring would be severe. The charity Barnado’s said it would continue to leave families “forced to make choices between heating the home and putting hot food on the table.”

They accuse the government of trying to hide the real problem – tackling the misery of rising fuel poverty.