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