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Social Justice

Will the government’s £18m public information campaign actually help people living in poverty?

New figures reveal 15 per cent of vulnerable people have stopped topping up their meters and cut themselves off from energy – causing significant health concerns

The government’s £18million public information campaign advising people how to save energy will not be enough to help people living in poverty who are already “risking their own health by cutting energy use”, experts have warned. 

The campaign will use public messaging to “increase consumers’ capability to reduce their own household usage and bills through making their homes more energy efficient for next winter,” the government said, “while equipping vulnerable groups with the right information for reducing energy usage without harming their health”.

But as the National Energy Action estimates that 8.4 million people are set to be plunged into fuel poverty next year, charities and campaigners are warning the government that more urgent measures are needed to protect people from the cold this winter. 

Simon Francis, the coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said: “People on low incomes have always saved energy, they don’t need the government to tell them how to do so. But now rising costs are forcing them to go much further, risking their own health by cutting energy use to the point that they are living in a cold damp home. 

“If people self-disconnect or drastically reduce their energy use, they are at risk from the severe health complications of living in a cold damp home. Children and those who are elderly, disabled or have pre-existing medical conditions are especially vulnerable this winter.”

Figures from YouGov, released to coincide with the Warm This Winter day of action on Saturday, reveal 15 per cent of vulnerable people have stopped topping up their meters and cut themselves off from energy.

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A further 51 per cent of vulnerable people are now rationing their energy consumption, meaning almost a quarter of vulnerable people are now living in cold damp homes.

Anne Vivian-Smith, a disabled woman from Nottingham who uses a wheelchair because of a neurodegenerative condition, said: “I spend my day sitting in the cold with four thermal layers, two blankets, and a hot water bottle. But if you’re immobile and don’t generate your own heat you can’t retain your own heat.”

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She has found it “impossible” to afford her heating bills and, as a disabled person, she has extra costs for ceiling hoists, a powered wheelchair, and a motorised bed and front door.

Figures from National Energy Action show 81 per cent of people will ration energy this winter, while 55 per cent are already rationing hot water, and 13 per cent are reducing use of medical equipment

“I’ve become one of those people spending time on the bus,” Vivian-Smith added. “I hadn’t appreciated the level of distress the cold is causing me until I recently had the opportunity to be in the warm for a bit. The project then closed so the chance was taken from me. I’m really struggling to lose all the negative feelings it’s caused.”

The full government advice, which can be found on the Help for Households website, urges people to reduce their boiler temperature, turning down radiators when they aren’t in use and taking action to reduce heat loss from a property such as draught-proofing windows. The government claims this will save households an average of £240 a year. 

Some charities have welcomed the news, with the Energy Saving Trust (EST), National Energy Action (NEA) and others consulted before the government launched the campaign. Stew Horne, head of policy at EST, said: “Providing key, actionable tips this winter, will help people in the short and long term.”

But he also called for a comprehensive and independent national advice service offering tailored support for households with clear signposting to any financial or local assistance. 

Matt Copeland, the director of policy at NEA, said he was “buoyed” by the campaign and felt the department had taken on the charity’s advice. His understanding is £18million has been spent on advertising across platforms, although the government has not clarified this and declined to comment when asked by The Big Issue. 

Copeland added: “People who are the poorest won’t save £240 a year. It is much more likely to go towards accessing warmth for those households rather than actually making savings, so they can use a safe amount of energy rather than the unsafe amount that they’re using at the moment.

“It’s just not enough. We need a lot more to be done. We need more targeted financial support for low-income households. The situations that people find themselves in this winter are really stark. 

“They need more money just to get through this winter and probably next winter as well. But beyond that, we need to make our homes more energy efficient. It’s not just about changing our behaviours. Our homes are really leaky and low-income people are much more likely to live in the leakiest homes and they’ll be paying more.”

For people living in poverty, a public information campaign seems little help. Alex Considine, who lives in social housing and is a campaigner for Don’t Pay UK, said: “Why couldn’t they just put that money back in the system? 

“When you are poor, and when you live on the breadline, you know how to live cheaply. You don’t have to tell us what food to buy. You don’t have to tell us how to save on energy bills. We’ve been sitting in the dark for years.”

Another Don’t Pay campaigner, Fern Bast, agreed. She said: “I thought I already knew how to save energy. I can’t afford not to. Even if I’m freezing it’s still too expensive paying the standing charges alone. If they insulate our homes, cancel standing charges and stop the rip off then maybe we’d need to be told how to save energy.”

Campaigners are organising a national day of action on Saturday to demand action from the government. Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift and one of the organisers of the Warm This Winter campaign, commented: “This government is clearly failing to fix the energy price crisis when so many households in the UK are rationing their energy use. 

“What’s worse is that ministers know how to solve it, starting with urgently insulating homes on a scale and with levels of funding that we’ve yet to see.”

The Big Issue contacted the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for further details about the campaign and a breakdown of how the £18million had been spent – a representative referred us to the press release and declined to comment further.

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The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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