The government is failing to recognise the extent of fuel poverty faced by disabled people, according to a coalition of campaigning organisations.
The coalition made ten demands in its End Fuel Poverty Charter, which says the “scandal” of fuel poverty has reached “crisis levels” and has led to debt, ill-health and winter deaths.
The main reason for the rapid growth of fuel poverty – defined as a household spending more than a tenth of its income on fuel – is the 120 per cent rise in fuel prices since 2003, says the charter.
Last July, figures from the government’s Fuel Poverty Advisory Group suggested more than a million more disabled people had fallen into fuel poverty between 2004 and 2008.
Among the charter’s ten “priority actions” for the government are: a fully-costed fuel poverty plan by the end of 2010; to ensure people claim the benefits they are entitled to; to take “all possible steps” to reduce household energy prices; and to provide “social price support” – such as bill rebates – to all “disadvantaged” consumers.
The charter says winter fuel payments – currently only available to those over 60 – should be extended to all households eligible for “cold weather payments” and terminally-ill people. This would mean extending them to many disabled people under 60 on low incomes.
The charter says the government is failing to recognise the extent of fuel poverty among disabled people, because it counts disability benefits such as disability living allowance (DLA) as “income” when defining fuel poverty.
And it says council assessments of disabled people’s disability-related expenditure fail to take their full energy needs into account.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, a coalition member, said the key priority was to convince the government to take proper account of the high cost of energy through the benefits system. He said it would be easy to target extra resources to those on higher rates of DLA.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said about two-fifths of those receiving help through Warm Front, its main grant-funded programme for tackling fuel poverty, also receive disability living allowance (DLA) or attendance allowance, while many disabled people receive cold weather payments.
She said winter fuel payments were created so those over 60, who are particularly vulnerable to the cold weather, could afford to turn up their heating in the winter.
She added: “There are other benefits designed specifically to meet the year round costs, including heating, that arise as the result of conditions such as cancer and their treatment.
“DLA is paid weekly and is more generous than the winter fuel payment.”
Meanwhile, the government has announced details of a scheme that will see up to 250,000 of the poorest people over 70 given £80 electricity bill rebates.
The government will share benefits information securely with energy companies – through provisions in the Pensions Act – allowing them to identify the poorest pensioner households.
Energy UK, which represents gas and electricity suppliers, said it hoped the scheme – if successful – could be expanded to include disabled customers on low incomes, although the government would need to make further changes to the law.
*The Home Heat Helpline offers free advice to disabled customers and others who need help with their energy bills on the grants, benefits and payment schemes they may be entitled to. Visit www.homeheathelpline.org.uk or phone 0800 33 66 99.
17 March 2010