Read all about it! FPA Annual Report for 2020

For millions of people finding money for fuel bills is more of a crisis than ever, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. More energy is needed when people are stuck at home, while many incomes are reaching rock bottom and debts are mounting up. People are rationing not only heat and electricity but food. Many have found that their grocery bills have increased. One in five families with children have been going hungry in this wealthy country — and in poorer parts of the world, famines are underway. Heat, power, and food are essentials for health — as is good housing. Not accidentally, the poorest communities, and particularly people of colour, are facing the highest death toll, along with older people, especially in the undervalued, under-resourced, underbelly of care, UK “care homes”.

This is the horror now being confronted by a groundswell of grassroots people andnetworks, organising to support our own families and communities and to demandfrom the government, from politicians, and from businesses, a total reversal ofpriorities. Health must come first, and an economy that prioritises the market hasbeen shown not to deliver on health. Brutal realities that have long been clear to millions who are fighting over fuel bills, housing, heating, food and inadequateincomes, are now public for the world to see. So is the money that can clearly befound when wanted, for instance for furlough and huge sums to keep businesses afloat. What seemed impossible has proved to be both do-able and essential.

At this moment of clarity, and with so many people and organisations coming together, we have a chance to move away from the deadly energy markets andhousing provision that kill 10,000 people a year in cold homes and leave many others with no home at all. And at the same time, as the clock nears midnight, we may havea chance to avert the worst of a climate apocalypse.

Read the full report below, or download the PDF here.

Fuel Poverty Action Annual Report 2020

No one should be cut off for lack of money to top up a meter!

After gas and electricity were privatised around 30 years ago, Ofgem was set up as a regulator to make sure that the private companies remained accountable to the public, to some degree.  Ofgem’s “standard licence conditions” impose quite a lot of obligations on these companies, and monitor customer service. They also have the power to cap prices, and have done so.

But the fact remains that many people just cannot afford their bills, and when you cannot pay you normally get put on a Prepayment Meter. Then you have to keep the meter topped up — it cuts off your power or your gas as soon as credit  runs out. And ofen you can’t get it back on until you can pay off “standing charges” that accumulate even when you’re using no heat or power. This plays havoc with people’s health, prospects, and relationships, and contributes to this country’s 10,000 deaths a year due to cold homes.

Recently, Ofgem has been consulting about what protections should be in place to prevent that happening. Ofgem refers to “self-disconnection” as if we were cutting ourselves off by choice.  But while the name is problematic, there are proposals for some good new license conditions.

Fuel Poverty Action has now responded to this consultation.  We hope this response will help establish some basic principles to prevent people going without the energy we need.  It will be published on Ofgem’s website, and in the meantime it can be found with our other consultation responses, here. Ofgem’s recommendations will be published later this year, but they will not be the last ones.  As the crisis of fuel poverty grows, stronger action will be needed.

Among other things, we press for suppliers to take it into account when people have exceptional needs for electric power, for instance because of district heating or heat pumps that do not perform as promised, or because the cladding and insulation have been removed from their tower blocks.

The Supply Licence Conditions & Guaranteed Standards of Performance run into hundreds of pages. Suppliers are fined sums large and small for serious and trivial breaches, of vast numbers of rules. Ofgem has powers to prohibit the ultimate sanction that suppliers wield to get bills paid: disconnection and so-called ‘self-disconnection’,  We think that is urgent for this coming winter and the hard times ahead.

Have a look here to see what we recommend.

Join us for the 2020 AGM of Fuel Poverty Action

Join us for the 2020 AGM of Fuel Poverty Action

Annual General Meeting – 6.45 for 7pm Thursday 10 September 2020

 RSVP – It is essential to let us know you’re coming, as we will then send you the link and details for zoom ([email protected]).

Following AGM business* (6.45) and a report of the year’s activities, this AGM will focus on plans for the coming winter and the hard times ahead 

bearing in mind how the pandemic, climate change, and increasing poverty and austerity are affecting first and hardest those who already have least: those of us who are Black or Minority Ethnic, low waged, unwaged, pensioners, disabled, children and young people, on benefits, migrants, or in poor housing.

We are delighted to provide a platform for three guest speakers:

Mónica Guiteras from APE, the Alliance against Energy Poverty, Catalonia  which has been exceptionally successful in holding energy suppliers to account will speak about how they have done it, using the combined power of people who can’t pay their bills, joining with climate and housing activists.

Graeme Langton, campaigning resident from a tower block in Salford which is just now having Grenfell-style cladding removed.  Residents are facing a winter without insulation and with heat pumps that they can’t afford to use.

Murat Kaya, Southwark leaseholder who recently won his case against the council which wanted him to pay for a new district heating boiler that never worked.

Discussion to include ‘How can we…?’:

  • Accelerate the home retrofits needed to keep us warm (and cool) enough, keep bills down, and slow the rush towards a transformed climate
  • Access the energy we need to stay healthy
  • Ensure that insulation and heating systems, in both new and old homes, are non-flammable, non-toxic, well-designed/installed/maintained, good for the climate, and suitable for our homes and for us as residents
  • Protect residents who are left without insulation following removal of cladding, or whose heating systems keep breaking down
  • Spread the word about what we’re entitled to and how to access help and insist on rights
  • Stop gas and electricity disconnections, district heating outages, and hungry prepayment meters. No more hungry children

At 8 pm, we invite you to get together with others who share your heating, housing, and affordability issues in smaller groups.  We will then come back together and finish by 8.30.

Fuel Poverty Action welcomes new members, and people who want to work with us in other ways.  Come along and raise your own issues, find out what’s happening, and consider how you might be part of it.  

If you want help in getting to grips with zoom, please let us know well in advance and we will help you.

* The AGM business section, for FPA’s voting members, will include a financial report and election of Directors. Members may appoint a proxy under section 324 of the Companies Act 2006 and article 22.

“What are we paying for?” Tribunal backs leaseholder on District Heating

In a pathbreaking decision, the First Tier Tribunal has told Southwark Council to refund money paid for District Heating which does not work. The Tribunal, which determines leasehold disputes, ruled that Mr Murat Kaya owed only one quarter of what had been demanded of him. Three quarters of what he had paid must be returned. For District Heating users, such victories are rare.

Mr Kaya, a leaseholder in Eugene Cotter House, sought a refund on nearly £4,000 demanded from him — and from every leaseholder in this council block. Mr Kaya told the Tribunal that before a communal boiler was replaced in 2016, the system worked fine.  Since then, there have been constant stoppages of both heat and hot water — eg 13 stoppages between mid November 2019 and 30 January 2020 — and equally constant visits from engineers. For all of this ineffective maintenance work, leaseholders were expected to pay — as well as financing the new boiler itself.

Both leaseholders and tenants have long questioned why they are having to live with such an intermittent service, which plays havoc with their families’ lives and health.  Repeated complaints and a petition have failed to bring any improvement.  

Celebrating his victory, Mr  Kaya says, 

the applicants are me and my next door neighbour only, but now I’m sure lots of other people will follow.  We should not be expected to pay for this 2016 replacement, or for maintenance that fails to maintain an acceptable level of service.”  

Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations (SGTO) and Fuel Poverty Action (FPA), who both supported Mr Kaya, have been working to ensure that council tenants are able to keep warm despite the endemic problems with Southwark’s ageing and ailing heat networks.

Ruth London of Fuel Poverty action notes, “Mr Kaya’s achievement is all the more important because such judgments are rare.  Not many have the courage, tenacity and resources to take on their landlords and suppliers.  District Heating can be good, for costs and carbon emissions, but customers cannot switch, and this rapidly expanding industry is still unregulated.  Users are at the mercy of suppliers when prices — and capital levies — are outrageously high, or when the heat and hot water constantly break down, or both.  With landlords and suppliers much better equipped and funded to pursue legal cases, it is hard for residents to get justice even when their case is very strong.”  

Mr Kaya had kept careful documentation, and secured the support of legal counsel: Josef Cannon of Cornerstone Barristers, acting pro bono.  Southwark Council, in contrast, was singularly unprepared, and unable to back up their arguments, as noted in the Tribunal’s unequivocal judgment (see paras 59-69). The Local Authority argued that they had fulfilled their obligations — since they always sent a repairman when the system broke down yet again. This logic was roundly rejected.

Mr Cannon said, “The key to this result was the meticulous record-keeping that Mr Kaya maintained over a long period. It allowed us to prove to the tribunal, in a way that could not be gainsaid, quite how intermittent and unsatisfactory the service had been. Residents who experience problems with district heating systems should attempt to keep diaries of the outages and, if they are even half as careful as Mr Kaya, they will be well-placed to prove their case.”

After a hearing held on 27 February, there was a long wait for the judgment, and then for the deadline to expire for a possible appeal.  Mr Kaya is now secure in his stunning, and unusual, win, which will have wide implications for district heating users elsewhere.

Ms London adds, “This hearing is a critical moment in a series of similar battles over District Heating that have been taking place around Southwark and nationally.  It must not be residents who pay for others’ failures.  Nor should they have to go as far as Tribunal to get simple justice or a heating system that works.

Mr Murat is available to speak to the media, as are other affected residents.

Cornerstone Barristers are at 020 7242 4986.

An Unusual Update – Spring 2020

Given the times we are living in, there’s a lot in this Update — and a lot to be done.

The sections are:

    1. The health emergency
    2. Ways forward from this crisis (our own initiatives and others’)
    3. Cladding and insulation
    4. District heating

The formatting on our website isn’t amazing – you can also read this in a google doc here

Changing times

The weather is improving, but for millions, finding money for fuel bills continues to be a crisis, with more energy needed when people are stuck at home, while many incomes are reaching rock bottom and debts are mounting up.  People are rationing not only heat and electricity but food.  Instead of 2 for 1 offers, shoppers are finding supermarket prices raised — while supermarkets, despite soaring profits, are also benefiting from government crisis funds.  One in five families with children is going hungry in this wealthy country — and in poorer parts of the world, famines are under way.  Heat, power, and food are essentials for health — as is good housing.  Not accidentally, the poorest communities, and particularly people of colour are facing the highest death toll, along with older people, especially in the undervalued, under-resourced, underbelly of care — UK “care homes”, where PPE and testing arrive last for both workers and residents.

This is the horror now being confronted by a groundswell of grassroots people and networks, organising to support our own families and communities and to demand from the government, from politicians and from businesses, a total reversal of priorities.  Health must come first, and an economy that prioritises private profit has been shown not to deliver on health.  What has long been clear to millions who are fighting over fuel bills, housing, heating, food and inadequate incomes, is now public for the world to see.  So are the many money trees that can clearly be found when wanted.  The impossible has proved to be both do-able and essential.

At this moment of clarity, and with so many people and organisations coming together, we have a chance to move away from energy markets and housing provision that were already killing 10,000 people a year in cold homes.  And at the same time, as the clock nears midnight, we may have a chance to avert the worst of a climate apocalypse.

FPA is a very small, unfunded organisation and we can’t do all we would wish.  But like so many others, we are fighting for our lives:

1. Immediate survival

If you are in trouble with your bill or meter, do contact us.  FPA are not distributing fuel vouchers — we have no funding, and there are people better placed than us to do this work. However, we are working with people who have raised money for this purpose (eg Repowering London, in Lambeth; SGTO in Southwark – see Covid-19 fundraiser here) and wherever you are, if you let us know, we will do our best to put you in touch with help, including pressing your energy supplier for a better response to your emergency.

We are also keen to hear from you what problems you are having, and whether you have been able to access support, in order to better fuel our pressure on both the government and suppliers.  Personal stories can be powerful!

Our first action in response to the Covid crisis was to publicise — but challenge — the agreement reached by the government and energy suppliers.  It’s supposed to ensure that people who cannot pay their bills or top up their meters get help.  It is far too limited, and we find many people can’t even get through to the help lines.  Please see our petition (and sign it, if you haven’t yet).  The first demand is immediate free credit for all prepayment meter users so that they are not left in the cold while trying to negotiate with suppliers. The petition has had some good media coverage (below) and has helped shape the public debate.  It needs more signatures!

We are following this up with support for a petition put forward by People’s Energy, for a government grant fund to make sure people can get financial support — and not just deferment of payment, landing them further in debt.  We believe, however that suppliers who benefit from such a deal with the government, should meet certain conditions, including no dividends while they are in effect receiving public funds.  There are, after all, suppliers who have for years left people to die from cold, forced prepayment meters on people (sometimes illegally), lobbied against renewable energy, and benefited from subsidies of fossil fuels. They cannot continue along the same tracks.  But with the energy market failing to deliver, a government fund is now a matter of life and death.

We’ve written to the government about these two petitions. Unfortunately so far the response has been pathetic.   We have also pressed for the existing protections to be extended to users of District Heating, with some, incomplete, success.

 2. Looking forward

FPA are currently supporting several initiatives that you may also want to sign on to, with a view to making sure that we move forward to a liveable world instead of bailing out the forces that have made “normal” a disaster.

Build Back Better 

The UK’s Build Back Better campaign is being launched today, Tuesday 12 May, which is International Nurses Day.  We’ll be taking part — do join us, beginning today by  sharing the video in support of Nurses United UK, which went live at 8.30 am.  Build Back Better’s first demand is:

Secure the health of everyone in the UK now and into the future, irrespective of employment or nationality – including for food, healthcare, income, job security, good housing and access to clean and affordable energy and heat, public transport, clean air  and green spaces.  

We will be pressing forward with specific demands on the “housing” and “energy” parts.

A Care Income

FPA have signed up to an Open Letter to governments demanding an income for carers.  Launched by the Global Women’s Strike and Green New Deal for Europe (GNDE) in 12 languages, this letter is supported by grassroots organisations all over the world and is open for signatures (individuals too).  It’s particularly relevant now, with the huge increase in unpaid work as we care for our families, neighbours and communities (see GNDE’s Covid-19 statement).  But FPA have long supported the principle, which would give many women, particularly, an income that reflects their contribution, and is enough to cover heating and other essentials.  As the National Pensioners’ Convention recently wrote to Matt Hancock, “The government must invest in the future by: . . . a national care service [and] . . . Creating an income for ‘informal carers’ – those who save the government billions of pounds each year for the pittance of carer’s allowance or in lots of cases, nothing at all.”

Supporting these initiatives, FPA is extending more to attacking the “Income” side of fuel poverty, while we also contribute to the housing, retrofitting, and heating proposals of Green New Deal organisers — GND UK, GND Europe, and the Scottish “Our Common Home”.

A “Warm Floor”

Prompted by the urgent need for guaranteed heat and power we have picked up again the proposal we started putting forward over a year ago: that everyone should get a certain amount of energy for free — but tariffs would increase for energy used above and beyond that “floor”.  This would reverse the perverse present situation where people who can’t afford much energy, or who cut their usage for the climate, pay more per unit than those who use a lot.  Combined with protections for people who actually need a lot of energy, this “Warm Floor” would provide a level of security.  Please get in touch if you would like to help us work through whether and how this can best be implemented.  

Contracts for a real difference

We’ve endorsed an open letter to the government, from Biofuelwatch, which you may want to sign on to here.  It’s pretty technical but is focused on making sure that moves towards “green energy” end up being the real thing, and not a con, like many forms of biofuel.

Campaigning is not extremism

We have also signed onto the open letter calling for the National Police Chiefs Council to confirm – before the lockdown is over – that it will abandon the categorisation of political campaigning activities as “domestic extremism”. Netpol want to close this letter off by the end of this week — if you want to support the right to protest, and to organise in these critical and unpredictable times, you may want to sign on as well.

3. Fire and cold

We’ve continued to support residents of Pendleton high rise estate in Salford, who have lived for three years in buildings that have Grenfell-style cladding, and all the same other fire dangers as those found in Grenfell itself.  Not even the faulty fire doors have been fixed.  The cost to these social housing tenants’ mental health has been disastrous, and made worse by the social landlord.  Pendleton Together have been ordering tenants indoors when they’ve been out of the building more than half an hour — and threatening them with the police or implications for their tenancies.  We’ve rounded up support for them including from their MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People.

Meanwhile in Parliament, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has published the findings of a survey into progress in dealing with fire risks since Grenfell.  1,352 people completed the survey, which found that:

  • 70% of respondents had different forms of combustible cladding and many had other fire safety issues like inadequate fire breaks (34%), and combustible or missing insulation (30%).
  • Residents’ mental health is still in pieces from living in flammable buildings, and many are also paying a high price financially, eg for 24-hour fire watch services.
  • There’s lots more — this 3-page report is well worth reading!
  • As the number of buildings facing re-cladding continues to expand, with residents fighting for the inclusion of buildings under 18 M high and with different types of flammable cladding, we’re continuing to raise the issue of homes being cold when cladding is off, succeeding.  We’ve helped get this included in others’ campaigns, eg here.

4. District Heating

  • When the virus struck, we were just beginning a series of meetings with residents on Southwark’s many council estates which are served by ageing and dysfunctional district heating networks.  Loss of heating and hot water happen all the time and residents, both tenants and leaseholders, are desperate.  While pressing for more lasting solutions, we have worked with Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations (SGTO) to make real a promise that the Council made last year: that at least people would not be out of pocket during break-downs when they’re forced to pay for electric space heaters and hot water.  Pre-lockdown we had a good meeting with the Council on the subject of this compensation.  It is understandable that follow-up has been delayed, but it is now even more urgent.  People in crisis can’t be expected to shoulder these extra costs.
  • Leaseholders in Southwark, and in New Festival Quarter private estate in Tower Hamlets, have been fighting demands for huge sums of money to pay for repairs to their heating system which do not improve things, and/or which should be covered by insurance claims or snagging.  We are also supporting them.
  • And we are actively supporting tenants on a Peabody estate, also in Tower Hamlets, who have been fighting for a fair tariff for their district heating — backdated to when they moved in, last September, having been given no contract or information about their heat. They have made some progress.
  • After years of pressure from ourselves and others, the government are finally consulting on regulations for the District Heating industry.  We will be submitting evidence to this, by 1 June, based on reports from users round the country – do send your experience in.  

Finally, if you would like to offer regular financial (or other!) support to FPA, please let us know.  We will shortly be launching a scheme called “Friends of FPA” for regular contributors, and it would be great to start out with a few named supporters. 

The Coronavirus fuel poverty crisis won’t be solved without government support

As the Covid 19 crisis unfolds, we are, as anticipated, hearing far too much about people forced into acute fuel poverty through self-isolation and/or loss of income. Gig economy workers have found themselves unable to access government support. The government furlough scheme is kicking in too slowly to help people get their bills paid now, and for those on low incomes 80% of usual earnings won’t stretch far enough. People who can usually afford to cover their needs are finding themselves choosing between adequate food and adequate heat and power. Both are crucial for health.  As the weather improves, there are still cold nights and days, extra needs for power for people home all day, money still owed from the spring and winter, and crushing anxiety about the year ahead.

The government made an agreement with suppliers to suspend disconnections and to support customers at risk. In practice, it isn’t working. What we are hearing is that companies generally won’t, or can’t, reduce bills – most will at best offer deferrals which for some just means the frightening reality of unpayable debts for the future.

Graeme Langton, from Salford says,

Help should be automatic if you’re on a low income, then you might say, ok, I can have it on for that extra hour.  It’s no good if you have to wait till you can produce the bill and apply.  You ask yourself, will I put the heating on in the hope that the government will give a bit back? What if they say no?  If you get in debt, you could lose your home.  And there’ll be interest on it, and 200% for overdrafts. Supermarkets have put prices up.  There’s no more 2 for 1 offers, instead the food prices have gone sky high.  It’s either eat or keep warm.   

In addition, there is a risk of some small companies going bankrupt, without a workable rescue plan for their customers.

To help those in crisis now, the government needs to set up an energy relief fund. This has been advocated by the People’s Energy company, an independent energy supplier that provides 100% renewable power and has pledged to give 75% of profits back to its customer-members through an annual rebate. We are convinced too that vital immediate needs will not be met without this sort of intervention. Government support would transform the implementation of the agreement reached with the energy industry, in line with our own petition.

Strings should be attached. For some energy companies, large and small, such support for customers who cannot pay their bills could be critical to their survival as well as that of their customers. We cannot forget that some of these firms have been responsible for many deaths from fuel poverty, forceful imposition of unwanted prepayment meters, a failure to prioritize energy efficient homes, and promoting fossil fuels over renewable sources of energy.  As this current crisis continues and with time, recedes, it is crucial to ensure that that model of supply does not continue to cause death and suffering.  If companies are going to benefit from this scheme, they should be required to commit to changes which will benefit their most vulnerable customers now and in the future.

These should include:

Thorough adherence to the terms of the agreement, to include short response times to customers in trouble, and a readiness to write off debts where paying them would leave people unable to meet basic needs for energy, rent and food.

Immediate free credit to users of prepayment meters so they are not cut off while they are trying to negotiate with suppliers.  This should not be refundable — no storing up debt for the future.  And standing charges should be waived — they disproportionately hit people who have cut their usage to a bare minimum, but cannot access any power till they’ve covered the standing charge.

Ambitious insulation programmes — installing safe and appropriate insulation  is the best way of bringing down bills. Government programmes were slashed eight years ago, and responsibility for this vital work passed to suppliers.  Home insulation installations  plummeted by 95% between 2012 and last year.

As is commonplace in Europe, companies being supported by government bail-outs should not be paying dividends to shareholders or huge salaries and bonuses to executives. While some energy suppliers are in financial trouble, we are coming to the easiest part of the year for them, and they are benefiting from the fact that wholesale prices of gas and oil have fallen like a stone, which has not been reflected in the price cap. Support for desperate customers must not end up as a windfall for people in no need at all.

Other companies might take a leaf out of People’s Energy’s book on customer service and response to the crisis so many people face. Their customers can expect to get through to them in 18 seconds. The emergency fund they have set up themselves raised £27k within the first day, and is helping them to start addressing customers’ needs.

But the reality is that the scale of the crisis means that government support is needed, and needed now.

New petition on COVID-19 – please sign!

change org petition photo - covid 19

Keeping the heat and lights on is a major worry now for people who may be home all the time and may have lost income.  The government and suppliers have agreed some help. You should not be disconnected — and there are also protections for people on prepayment meters.

  • If you can’t get out to top up, or your emergency credit has run out CONTACT your energy supplier for help NOW. You can find their contact details online or on your bill.
  • Your supplier can add credit to your account or sending you a pre-loaded card or key.

However, FPA are concerned that the agreement will still leave many people in the dark and cold (for the exact provisions see here and a summary at the bottom of the petition, below. So we’ve started a petition! Please SIGN and help circulate it as widely as you can.

The agreement between the government and the energy suppliers say that people struggling to top up prepayment key or card meters will be able to contact their suppliers to discuss ‘having a discretionary fund added to their credit, or being sent a pre-loaded top up card so that their supply is not interrupted.’  Others having difficulties with energy costs should also be supported by measures ‘which could include debt repayments and bill payments being reassessed, reduced or paused where necessary’.

New website

Hi everyone, we’ve had some issues with our old website so this is a (premature) launch of this newer version. If there’s some information you can’t find on this site do get in touch and we’ll do our best to help. We’ll be working on the site this week to get it up to scratch.

Thanks for your patience!

Phil (FPA volunteer)