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’.

Still in Danger One Year On

Before the government conceded the principle by promising to “fully fund” the replacement of Grenfell-style cladding, FPA had collected over 60 signatures from MPs, community organisers, campaigners, trade unions, and resident associations on an open letter that demanded that the government release the money to make people safe and warm. Though the victory in £400 million cannot be understated, the money and promises don’t nearly go far enough in ensuring peoples’ homes are made safe from fire, nor does it promise vital guarantees to keep people warm over the winter when remediation works are underway and cladding and insulation is off. FPA spoke to many people left out in the cold and suffering in freezing homes last winter, whilst their insulation was off. Cold, like fire, kills.
FPA have redrafted their letter and sent it out to be signed. The new letter presses on a set of urgent demands that the government needs to meet and will be delivered to the Secretary for Housing, Communities and Local Government this October.
Please read and share.
Solidarity.
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Still Not Safe — news from a Salford tower block

On the anniversary of Grenfell, I have been asked to write this blog post describing what its like living in a high-rise building with dangerous cladding on it like Grenfell had.  My name is Elizabeth and I live in a 22 story high rise housing association block in Salford, managed by Pendleton Together and owned by Salford council.

The block has flammable cladding. And a year on from the tragedy it still has the cladding on it except for the first three floors. And it’s been terrible living here since the tragic events for several reasons. Since the Grenfell fire me and several residents haven’t been able to sleep well and have been too scared to sleep, especially in the first few weeks. We were first promised that if anyone wanted to move they should just go to the Housing Association and they would look at our cases fairly. But unfortunately many residents, even the ones with kids on high floors and people with health problems and people with doctors letters recommending they are moved, have been denied a move. This has upset residents a lot since many kids and people with health problems died in Grenfell .

Elizabeth’s tower block in Salford – covered in flammable cladding

We have been told that removing the cladding is going to take two years and that they’re looking at installing sprinklers in the all the high rise blocks. A month after the Grenfell  fire the mayor  of Salford, Paul Dennett , said he would remove the cladding and that he wouldn’t wait for the report from the national and local government on testing whether the cladding that’s on our blocks is flammable like Grenfell.  And that he would borrow £25 million pounds to get the cladding off and keep residents safe.  Unfortunately, Pendleton Together only removed the first three rows, and a year later my block and many other blocks managed by Pendleton Together still have the major part of the cladding still on. Cladding only came off for the camera news crews and work stopped when the camera and TV news crews stopped filming.

There was a meeting I attended about a month after the Grenfell tragedy, which was held in Salford youth theatre, where the deputy mayor and other various speakers came to talk about Grenfell. When the meeting got heated the deputy mayor of Salford said we should be thankful he came, as he didn’t have to come to the meeting to let local residents know what the Salford Council was going to do about our unsafe home. He stated that the Salford council only had £25 million in its reserves, unlike Kensington and Chelsea, the council that the Grenfell Tower falls under.

In my block there is an internal fire alarm. When it goes off it only rings in the two exit stairwells which are located at both ends of the building, not the hallway, not the flats as it’s not connected to ring all the fire alarms to alert residents there is a fire in the building and to evacuate. The fire alarm is so quiet because the sound is coming from the stairwell. When it goes off, many residents don’t hear it. I and others have complained about that but nothing has been done.

We have had four fire alarms where residents had been told to evacuate the building and many residents were still inside with their kids and said they didn’t hear it. That’s no surprise since nobody lives in the stairwell.  I slept through one fire alarm as I couldn’t hear it as I was sleeping and it’s too quiet. If you have the TV or music on you might not hear it, or if you’re sleeping.

Secondly we have no fire blankets or small fire extinguishers to put out small fires, like many flats have for safety.

Thirdly we have no Tenants Association due to the fact the housing association locked us out of the community room and said not enough people attend the meeting. We usually have between 5 and 10 people at our tenants meeting, but they said it’s not enough. So we can’t make an official complaint as the Tenants Association meeting as we aren’t official. It’s been like that for two years now. Our community room has never been open to the tenants officially, it’s been used by the cleaners and by other blocks for their meetings, which is very unfair.

 If one tenant types a letter expressing the complaints of several tenants, the Housing Association will target the person whose address is on the letter and say that they’re the only one complaining. We have to put a resident’s address on the letters as a reply address, as the community room doesn’t have an address or letterbox,  that was binned after the refurbishment

We were promised raised beds to grow vegetables and fruit since many residents are on low incomes. We were hoping to donate the vegetables and fruit to the food bank but that never materialized even though it was on the plans of the refurbishment of the block.

We also have very expensive heating system called the NIBE system , that many residents can’t afford and that other housing associations have had to rip out due to expensive bills that it causes  for residents. Residents have complained about the NIBE but the Housing Association has just blamed the residents and said they haven’t use the NIBE properly.

The major refurbishment of our block included an electricity installation, and it’s caused many power surges that have tripped the electricity in my flat and others’ flats.  My cooker which was only a year and half old tripped my electricity and cut all my electricity off in my flat due to a power surge.  I called out the housing association, they sent an electrician who said it was my cooker. I then called the manufacturer who tested my cooker and said there was nothing wrong with it. My friend who lives in another flat also had problems with her cooker ever since the electricity refit. Her cooker is not working properly. We have never been offered any compensation and being unemployed I had to pay the bill just for the manufacturer to tell me there nothing wrong with my cooker.

Grenfell tower – hundreds of tower blocks around the UK are not fire safe

 Grenfell residents and their blog was complaining about the power surge since their refurbishment. It’s really worrying that we having the same problem. As it’s strange for a fridge freezer to catch fire. Rumours are that it’s the electricity surges and the upgrade of the block that made the fridge catch fire. I can’t know for sure but I don’t believe that fridges randomly catch on fire .

After Grenfell I don’t trust the Tory Government , my local council or the Housing Association.  It’s disgusting that a year after Grenfell many residents haven’t been rehoused.  And that residents who live in high rises like Grenfell with this cladding are being ignored. Its stinks of class warfare to me. Our lives don’t matter in these austerity times.

The housing association lastly have put fire marshalls who are meant to walk the floors 24 hours a day, but many residents have complained that they are always downstairs on the ground floor and never seen walking the floors. If the fire alarm goes off they are meant to run up stairwells , go on each floor  and alert residents to evacuate the building, but in practice they only seem to be on the second  floor or on the ground floor when the fire alarm has sounded, which has made many residents feel unhappy and unsafe.

These are the reasons why many residents are unhappy living in these high rises, because their problems aren’t being addressed and they are being denied a move to safe accommodation.

You can join the ‘Safe Cladding and Insulation Now’ facebook group to share your story and hear from others here.
Full details of the Fuel Poverty action ‘Safe Cladding and Insulation Now’ campaign can be found in the Cladding & Insulation sections of our website.

Government finally promises to fund re-cladding in social housing! A good beginning . . .

Eleven months after promising to “keep our people safe”, the government has announced that they will “fully fund” replacement of cladding in social housing tower blocks.  They estimate the cost at around £400 million.  This is a huge achievement for those who have been pressing hard for this money, including Grenfell survivors, FPA and the many organisations and MPs supporting the demands of our SCIN campaign (Safe Cladding and Insulation Now!), and Local Authorities whose tower blocks are affected.   But it’s nowhere near enough, and there are many unanswered questions, including, incredibly: will the new cladding also be flammable?

Below is the letter we sent to the Secretary of State when Theresa May announced the new money.  We will be writing to him again as soon as he releases, as promised, the details of the planned funding.  We will be inviting supporters to join us in signing this new letter, to be delivered later this year.  Protection for tenants and leaseholders, from fire and from cold is essential and is a minimum that all are entitled to expect.  And there must be no further delays!  The time for re-cladding is now.

Sign our letter to Ofgem on extending their limited cap on energy tariffs

We just took over City Hall to demand the Mayor keep his climate promises

Check out the photos and the video from our friends at Switched on London.
This morning we joined people from across London in bringing Mayor’s Question Time to a standstill, to demand that Sadiq Khan keep his election promises. Join our action online now (or see below).
Along with Switched on London, Divest London and the Greater London Pensioners’ Association we took over the chamber at City Hall and filled it with hundreds of paper planes containing messages for the Mayor.
Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London on the back of two big environmental promises:

  • To set up a public energy company that gives Londoners clean, affordable energy
  • To divest the London Pension Fund from fossil fuels

Over a year in office and he’s broken both. So we decided it was time for action.
Continue reading “We just took over City Hall to demand the Mayor keep his climate promises”

Tell Ofgem: We want a universal cap!

Hundreds of thousands of disabled people and young children in low income homes could be worse off without a fuel price cap – make your voice heard NOW!
Mon 13 November at 9 am is the deadline for responses to a proposed limited cap on energy prices.  You may know that the government has for over a year been promising relief for people who pay the default “standard variable tariff” (SVT) – and who are getting ripped off as a result.  Meanwhile prices have soared, and so have suppliers’ profits.  A small cap on tariffs has been brought in for people with Prepayment Meters.  It’s inadequate, but better than nothing.  For people with credit meters, Theresa May promised a cap, then went back on it, then promised it again: u-turn upon u-turn. And she is now reassuring the energy industry that it will take ages, if it comes in at all.  But meanwhile, the energy regulator Ofgem, with government support, is proposing a limited “safeguarding” cap, which would apply only to people who receive the Warm Home Discount.
Here the story gets murky.  Warm Home Discount – worth £140 a year off your electricity bill — is awarded automatically to pensioners on low incomes.  People deemed “vulnerable” for other reasons – particularly disability or illness, or children aged 5 or under, can apply to their energy supplier and may get it, but it is “first come first served” with a limited pot, and all the suppliers have different requirements to say who qualifies, mostly based on what benefits you receive.  Some smaller suppliers don’t offer Warm Home Discount at all.  
This means that despite being eligible, disabled people and children will often be excluded – not only from the discount itself, but now from the cap, which Ofgem say could save the average user around £120 a year. That is a total of over £260 a year, and much more if you need the heat on a lot or use a lot of power.
Ofgem are consulting on this plan, and Fuel Poverty Action will be telling them that this is particularly shocking.  Disabled people often need more heat, for medical reasons or if we’re home a lot, and can suffer much worse effects if we can’t afford to keep warm.   And, having been hit hardest by multiple cuts, disabled people are in a worse position to deal with rising fuel prices.  The same is true for the parents of babies and young children, with benefit cuts, universal credit and low wages causing a massive increase in child poverty.
There is even a risk that, if the cap is applied to some people, the people who don’t qualify for the cap may see our fuel prices rise by even more, as suppliers try to make up the difference through cross-subsidisation!
An Ofgem press release says they will “Ofgem will work on extending price protection to at least a further 2 million vulnerable households for winter next year once the timing of the Government’s price cap is confirmed”.  However, there is nothing about this “work” in the actual consultation papers; instead they repeatedly say that to bring the cap in quickly, they will limit it to people who already get the Warm Home Discount.
Fuel Poverty Action think a cap should apply across the board – no means-testing, no cliff-edge where your bills go up if you get knocked off disability benefits, or get a rise in pay, or get married … The prices are too high for everyone now, thousands of people in all sorts of situations are dying from cold every year, and suppliers are making a killing.
But in the meantime, the Ofgem cap is scheduled to come in this coming February.  At the very least, it should apply to everyone who would be eligible for Warm Home Discount, whether or not you actually get it.   If you want to help make sure that the cap covers more of the people who need it most urgently, you can send a simple email to:
Jemma Baker at [email protected], by 9am on Monday 13 November
And send us a copy at [email protected]!
Tell them: warm homes are a right – not a “first-come-first-served” lottery!
Feel free to check out our response for inspiration.

PRESS RELEASE: Fuel poverty campaigners ridicule little CMA cap on prepayment meter tariffs

11th November 2016

A dozen campaigners today delivered a response to the Competition and Market Authority’s proposals to cap the extra cost paid for energy by users of prepayment meters. They came from Fuel Poverty Action, National Right to Fuel Campaign, Unison, and the All African Women’s Group, and included pensioners, teachers, and asylum seekers. They wielded placards proclaiming “Your cap doesn’t fit”, “Higher Tariffs = Discrimination” and “Cold Homes Kill”.i

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Prepayment meter users pay on average £300 more than customers on direct debit. The CMA propose to decrease this difference by just £75. In their response, Fuel Poverty Action demanded parity, a position which has been endorsed by a series of other organisations.ii FPA handed in the response in the lobby of Victoria House, in a tiny doll’s cap, to highlight the insult of the CMA’s insufficient proposal.

Passing on the cap containing a scroll with the response, Ruth London of FPA told Project Director Erika Lewis, “Energy companies’ license conditions forbid discrimination against users of PPMs, the CMA’s own Roger Witcombe has declared, It is unacceptable that 4 million households on prepayment meters, many of them vulnerable, face higher bills than other energy customers,’ and yet the CMA’s proposals will perpetuate this injustice.” Erika Lewis, for the CMA, agreed that the proposals are not set in stone and promised that they would take seriously the evidence provided.

Given the rife exploitation of customers by the energy industry, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy secretary Greg Clark has promised to “deal with this problem”. Fuel Poverty Action are therefore today sending a letter to both Greg Clark and Theresa May to ask whether they genuinely intend to challenge an industry that has had a free pass for so long, or will they bring in measures like the CMA’s cap, that sound good on paper, but in practice leave us in the cold.

Case Study

As well as costing more, PPMs are often forced on people, sometimes by break-ins to their homes. One such case is that of Josh Hull of Windsor who came home to find his front door lock broken – hea thought he had been burgled. He then found his payments debited for a previous tenant’s debt – a common problem – and is unable to use his electricity. Aside from the cost, he says the anxiety and sleepless nights are draining, and have harmed his performance in a new job. He is ready to speak to the media.

[i] Pictures available here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B0qHcBpAhFaCVUQtcWwxS0RiYkk?usp=sharing

[ii] See our response on our website for the full list of endorsements: https://www.fuelpovertyaction.org.uk/campaigns/no-minor-cap-on-prepayment-meters-parity-now/

Email: [email protected]

Website: fuelpovertyaction.org.uk

Phone: 07751 748 026

Twitter: @fuelpovaction