Families in poverty who are forced to switch off their gas and electricity supply because they are unable afford spiralling energy bills will be offered free charity fuel vouchers under a pilot scheme. The so-called “fuel banks” initiative will provide a £49 credit for struggling families who use prepayment meters in a move designed to address the austerity-era dilemma of “heat or eat”. It is being run by energy firm nPower and poverty charities including the food bank network Trussell Trust.
The vouchers, which will provide enough credit to restore power, and keep lights and heating on for up to two weeks, will be available to people in crisis referred to food banks by welfare advice agencies, GPs and social workers.
Labour MP Frank Field, who has campaigned against fuel and food poverty through his all-party Feeding Britain initiative, described the scheme as an “important breakthrough” that would help families who face an agonising choice between putting money in the gas meter or food on the table.
But critics said it was a public relations move that could not substitute for low wages and cuts to the welfare state hardship funds, or distract from the “profiteering” fuel prices charged by the Big Six energy firms – including npower.
Inability to afford even switch on the cooker or heat bathwater has been a striking feature of poverty in the UK in recent years, as low-income households struggle to cope with shrinking wages, rising living costs and welfare cuts such as the bedroom tax.
Last year it emerged that Trussell’s food banks were issuing special “kettle box” food parcels designed for clients who could not afford to cook, or in extreme cases, “cold box” parcels for those who could not even afford to heat water.
The fuel bank scheme is explicilty aimed at households who “self-disconnect” from prepayment meters to save money. Research by the Citizens Advice Bureau suggests more than 1.6 million people go without electricity or gas every year in the UK.
The scheme, which will be available to all referred people, not just npower customers, will be piloted in 21 locations across County Durham, Kingston-upon-Thames and Gloucester. If deemed successful, npower will roll out the initiative nationwide, with the aim of support up to 13,000 households in the first year.
The vouchers will be distributed using Trussell’s food bank protocols, to individuals and families referred to them after being identified by professionals as being “in crisis”. Clients would be allowed three fuel vouchers in a year.
David McAuley, chief executive of the trust, said:
“In many cases people coming to food banks can be facing financial hardship that leaves them both hungry and in fuel poverty. By providing npower fuel bank vouchers at food banks, we can make sure that people who are most vulnerable are not only given three days’ food, but can turn on the energy supply to cook it and heat their homes too.”
Matthew Cole, npower’s head of policy and obligations, said the energy company had always worked hard to help its most vulnerable customers:
“It [the fuel bank scheme] will provide immediate and hassle free support to households where often the choice is between food or warmth.”
Matthew Cole of the Fuel Poverty Action campaign said:
“These fuel banks will do nothing to hide the harmful actions of the Big Six, including home break-ins to install unwanted prepayment meters, visits by bailiffs, and energy supply disconnections to vulnerable households.
“Our current, for-profit energy system is broken – only an affordable, public, and renewable energy system will make a meaningful difference to those affected by fuel poverty and energy debt. With the huge majority of public opinion in favour of public energy, it’s no wonder the Big Six are trying to improve their image.”
The Trussell trust, which this week announced that its 445 food banks distributed enough emergency food to feed almost 1.1 million people for three days last year, said that it was looking to create more business partnerships. It already has a food collection partnership with Tesco.
Source – The Guardian, 23 Apr 2015
Food poverty is no longer being seen as a welfare issue as those who suffer from it have got so used to turning to charities for help.
In a report, North East academic Dr Jane Midgley said the huge increase in foodbanks run by the voluntary sector has blurred the lines as to who should be caring for the vulnerable and the needy.
She said a squeeze on incomes, benefit sanctions and rocketing utility bills are the drivers of foodbank use, but people instead see their local council as ‘uncaring’ and ‘part of the problem’.
Dr Midgley, whose research formed part of the Feeding Britain report by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK, urged councils to show support for those facing the misery of food poverty and called for more clarity over the root causes of the phenomenon.
“We are increasingly finding that charities, rather than the state, are supporting people in need who cannot afford to feed themselves.
“While we need to recognise the effort this takes and the difference it makes to peoples lives, the boundaries of this responsibility are far from clear.
“Food poverty is not seen as a welfare issue and because of the way charities and voluntary sector organisations have stepped in, people no longer see local government and the public sector as a source of support.”
Foodbank use exploded in 2014. The Trussell Trust said between April and September 2014, more than 25,000 people were helped by the charity’s Gateshead , Newcastle East and Newcastle West End food banks.
That works out at 4,289 people a month – more than treble the 1,316 people per month in Newcastle and Gateshead who accessed a foodbank in the nine month period between April 2013 and December 2013.
“We are now not just at a critical juncture for how we respond to the issue of food poverty, but also what this means for local policy makers,” Dr Midgley added.
“They need to be able to show, in a difficult financial climate, that they still care and want people who live within their towns and cities to live well and flourish.”
The Feeding Britain report warned that North families are just one unexpected bill away from food poverty. It said the living wage and speedier benefit payments must form part of the solution.
Councillor Iain Malcolm, leader of South Tyneside Council, said he had “no indication” people were turning on councils and said staff were supportive of people facing the misery of food poverty.
“We are one of the richest nations in the world and yet we are seeing some of the most terrible cases of poverty in years due to the huge financial pressures being put on hard-working families.
> I do wish politicians would refrain from parrotting hard-working families on issues like this. It implies that those not working for whatever reasion are lazy, and before we know where we are we’re back to the concept of deserving and undeserving poor.
“We are living in a society where rising costs and relentless government cuts across the country are creating much tougher living conditions. Here in South Tyneside we are doing all we can to try and support and protect people who are experiencing the greatest hardship.
“As a council we have committed to the phased introduction of the Living Wage for Council workers from April 2015. This should help people on some of the lowest wages and we hope that other businesses will be able to look to do the same.”
Dave Anderson, MP for Blaydon, said Coalition ministers were to blame for the rise in foodbanks.
“You can’t sack half a million public sector workers or employ people on exploitative zero hours contracts and expect there to be anything other than a calamitous outcome.
“While ministers enjoy Christmas this week far too many of our people will be struggling, literally, on the breadline. It’s time to stop penalising the poor for the failures of the richest in society.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 02 Jan 2015