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
This article was written by Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 27th August 2014
Local authorities were unable to collect up to 40% of council tax due from low-income households that had the charge imposed on them for the first time last year.
The result has been widespread non-payment. Nationally, more than a fifth of council tax charged to working-age claimants was unpaid at the end of 2013-14.
The figures, obtained from responses from 140 councils to Freedom of Information requests by the anti-cuts group False Economy, reveal that some of the biggest towns and cities were left chasing millions of pounds from the poor.
Liverpool collected 61% of council tax due from the poor, leaving the city short by £3.5m.
In Birmingham, the non-payment rate among the vulnerable was 30%, leaving the council seeking to recover £3m in lost revenue.
Leeds, Nottingham and Sheffield were all chasing more than £2m each in tax from those on the lowest incomes.
A report published last month by Child Poverty Action Group and the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust said almost 40% of Londoners affected by the cuts had been sent a court summons for council tax debts in 2013-14, with more than 15,000 claimants’ debts referred to bailiffs.
In Haringey, north London, which collected 80% of the council tax due from benefit claimants, hundreds of households have been taken to court to recover unpaid tax – with non-payers threatened with bankruptcy, repossession and ultimately prison.
Last week, sitting in the magistrates court in Tottenham, Dick, 49, said there was “no way” he could afford the £7-a-week council tax his housing association two-bedroom flat was being charged. He has walked with a stick since his Achilles tendon snapped in 2012.
“I don’t work. I get employment support allowance which is £70 a week and my son lives with me and he gets a few hours on a market stall. After rent and everything else we have about £140 a month to live on. Food, clothes, the lot. I go down the food bank to eat. Can’t afford to heat up food because we cannot put money into the gas meter. How can I afford the council tax too? We never paid this before. It’s just getting the poor to pay up. That’s all it is.”
Dick said he had offered to pay £3 a week towards council tax after working out his finances with the local Citizens Advice bureau, but the local authority did not respond to his offer. Instead the council has asked for the full year’s council tax to be paid immediately – £350 – plus the cost of recovering his unpaid tax through a liability order of £125. “It’s ridiculous. I worked all my life. Never needed anything. Now I got nothing they want to get that.”
A spokesperson for False Economy called for the cuts to be reversed. “These figures show that people on low incomes are struggling to cope with council tax benefit cuts, just as the government was warned they would. Households are left either falling into debt and at risk of legal action, or taking money for food and essentials to plug the shortfall, in what is a government-created personal debt crisis.”
Councils said they were caught in an “impossible situation” as ministers had forced local authorities to pass on £500m in cuts when the scheme was introduced – and there would be further reductions in the discounts the poor received as town hall budgets were squeezed in the coming years.
Sharon Taylor, chair of the Local Government Association’s finance panel, said: “Councils would need to find £1bn by 2016 to protect discounts for those on low incomes.
“At a time when local government is already tackling £20bn worth of cuts, this is a stretch too far. Many councils have been put in an impossible position. No one wants to ask those on the lowest incomes to pay more. But pressure on funding for local services means many councils have had little choice but to reduce the discount.”
Hilary Benn, the shadow cabinet member responsible for local government, said two million of the poorest people were affected by the council tax hikes.
“These figures show that many of the people affected, including single parents and disabled people, are finding it very difficult to pay the Tories’ tax increase. The government was warned that this was going to be Poll Tax mark two, and so it is proving.”
The government defended its changes, saying it had “worked with councils to freeze council tax for the last four years” for most residents.
Kris Hopkins, the local government minister, said: “Our reforms to localise council tax support now give councils stronger incentives to support local firms, cut fraud, promote local enterprise and get people into work. We are ending Labour’s something-for-nothing culture and making work pay.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 29 Aug 2014