Heat or eat? Fuel bank scheme to assist families crippled by poverty

(Reuters / Umit Bektas)
Poverty-stricken families who face the dilemma of whether to heat their homes or go hungry will be given free fuel vouchers under a new pilot scheme so they can afford to meet soaring energy bills in a climate of ongoing austerity.

The measure has been described by some critics as a public relations exercise that fails to address inequality, low wages and the gradual erosion of the welfare state.

The newly formed “fuel-banks” initiative will offer Britons free fuel vouchers worth £49 in a bid to address Britain’s fuel and food poverty crises. The scheme was set up by energy giant nPower and a group of social justice groups, including leading food bank charity the Trussell Trust.

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The vouchers will offer financially struggling individuals and families enough credit to restore their power, and keep light and heating operational in their homes for up to 14 days. They will be made available to people who have been referred to food banks by GPs, social workers and welfare advice bodies.

The scheme has been welcomed by some anti-poverty campaigners, who say it will offer vital assistance to those who are living under agonizing financial stress and are unable to afford many of life’s basic necessities.

Labour MP Frank Field, who has campaigned against food and fuel poverty through his cross-party Feeding Britain project, told the Guardian the fuel banks initiative is an “important breakthrough” that will assist families who are burdened with the harrowing choice of adding money to their gas meter or staving off hunger.

However, the initiative has been sharply criticized by others who say it is not a substitute for paltry wages or deep spending cuts – and offers a convenient distraction from the high prices charged by “profiteering” energy companies.

Liz Wyatt, of Britain’s Fuel Poverty Action campaign, told the Guardian the fuel bank initiative “will do nothing to hide the harmful actions of the Big Six [energy firms].”

Wyatt was particularly critical of the energy firms’ “home break-ins” to fit “unwanted prepayment meters.” She also condemned visits from bailiffs, and the prospect of “energy supply disconnections to vulnerable households.”

Wyatt said Britain’s “for-profit energy system is broken,” and an affordable, renewable and public energy system is needed to meaningfully address the nation’s fuel and energy poverty crises.

“With the huge majority of public opinion in favor of public energy, it’s no wonder the Big Six are trying to improve their image,” she added.

READ MORE: 1.1mn working households in England plagued by fuel poverty

The incapacity to heat water or switch on electrical appliances has been a grave feature of poverty in Britain in recent years, as low-earning individuals struggle to survive in the face of contracting wages and harsh welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax.

Last year, grueling poverty in Britain forced food bank charity the Trussell Trust to take drastic measures. Against a backdrop of growing inequality in Britain, the charity began dispensing specially devised “kettle box” food parcels to financially struggling people who couldn’t afford to cook food. The charity also handed out “cold box” parcels to those who couldn’t even afford to heat water.

The fuel bank initiative, run by UK charities and nPower, specifically targets households who disconnect from gas and electricity meters to save cash. Recent research carried out by Britain’s Citizen Advice Bureau indicates over 1.6 million people are forced to live without gas or electricity each year in the UK.

The scheme, which will be offered to all referred individuals, will be initially tested in 21 locations across Gloucester, Kingston-upon-Thames and County Durham. If considered successful, nPower will extend the initiative with the objective of assisting as many as 13,000 British households over the first 12 months.

The vouchers will be offered in accordance with the Trussell Trust’s protocols, with struggling households being entitled to a total of three per year.

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David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, said “financial hardship” is leaving Britons hungry and cold.

“In many cases people coming to food banks can be facing financial hardship that leaves them both hungry and in fuel poverty,” he told the Guardian.

“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.”

On Wednesday, it emerged recorded food bank use in Britain has risen to a record high in the past year. The figures, provided by the Trussell Trust, directly challenged Conservative Party claims the benefits of the UK’s economic recovery had been even shared across society.

Over the past 12 months, the Trust’s 445 food banks handed out emergency food to almost 1.1 million people in crisis for at least three days in 2014-15. This marked a rise of 913,000 from the previous year.

Fuel poverty in Britain also harbors agonizing social costs. Official state figures indicate the winter of 2012/13 was characterized by 31,000 additional deaths as a result of fuel poverty – a rise of 29 percent on the previous year. Experts estimated at the time that 30-50 percent of these tragic deaths were linked to people whose homes were simply too cold.