Energy firm Npower is planning to open fuel banks offering vouchers for free gas and electricity to the poor.
They would operate alongside existing food banks which give three days’ worth of donated food to those in need.
The proliferation of food banks has been controversial and it has been at the centre of the Labour Party’s attack on the Coalition. The arrival of fuel banks is likely to intensify the political furore.
The step may also be interpreted as an attempt by one energy giant to stem criticism of its pricing from consumer groups and the threat of a price cap from Labour.
Npower, one of the Big Six energy companies which dominate the market, aims to open fuel banks in a series of pilot programmes across the country which are likely to be up and running over the summer.
The company is understood to be in the process of signing agreements with partners to operate the scheme.
Those people judged to be in need of help would be given a voucher to put towards energy costs. It is expected to pay for energy lasting the average household ‘about two weeks’, said a source close to the company. Npower declined to comment.
The source said: ‘They could do this three times a year and it would be available not just for our customers but anybody, no matter who their supplier is.
‘The idea is that we run this for six months over the summer so we can be sure we administer this properly before we hit winter when demand is likely to increase.’
The energy company believes that those most likely to claim from its fuel banks are already on pre-payment energy meters. Comparison website uSwitch has said there are 5.9 million people who are on this type of meter.
A report from the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK published last December noted that the average price of gas, electricity and other fuels had increased by 153.6 per cent in Britain from 2004-2013 compared with 76 per cent in Germany and 59 per cent in France.
Vouchers which allow the less well off to obtain supplies from food banks can be obtained from social services, the service, doctors’ surgeries and schools. It is likely that fuel banks will be organised using similar arrangements.
The arrival of fuel banks is likely to ratchet up the pressure on the Coalition. In the TV debates David Cameron failed to answer questions from interviewer Jeremy Paxman on how many food banks there are and how rapidly they have grown.
According to Paxman, there were 66 when the Coalition came to power and there are now 421. However, there are no official figures and some estimate that the number of food banks is much higher.
Food banks fed almost a million people in 2014, according to figures from the Trussell Trust, the charity which operates many of them, though the figure has been disputed.
Many began offering ‘kettle boxes’ to those who cannot afford to switch on their cooker to boil foods like rice or pasta. The meals in the boxes can be prepared by adding boiling water. ‘Cold boxes’ of provisions including tinned food are also available and do not require any heating.
Source – Mailonline, 18 Apr 2015