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Disability and UK fuel poverty

December 14, 2010

This is one I posted on Dreamwidth last week, and had intended to write a more comprehensive post on UK fuel poverty in general here. Since that hasn’t happened, I’ll just go ahead and post that one here.

Note: since I wrote this, it has warmed up some, but another cold spell at least as bad is expected soon: White Christmas likely as forecasters predict return of Arctic weather to UK (“Western regions expected to be the worst-hit with lull in freezing temperatures expected to end abruptly on Thursday”). Another blurb from today that drives home the inequality point: Winter weather prompts surge in holiday bookings; yeah, that’s a great option if you’re poor enough that you can’t heat your house to a healthy level.

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I’m trying to put a longer blog post together tonight, but thought I’d post something shorter on the disability-related concerns in the meantime here.

With the cold spell the UK is in now, I’ve been feeling extra-lucky to have a warm house and no serious financial worries. Especially after seeing reports like this: Britain is freezing to death:

Pensioners, who are among those most ­vulnerable to the cold, are resorting to ­extraordinary measures to keep warm.
Many have been using their free travel ­passes to spend the day riding on buses while others are seeking refuge from the cold in libraries and shopping centres…
The winter death toll is set to rise steeply as official figures show that nine elderly people died every hour because of cold-related illnesses last year. The number of deaths linked to cold over the four months of last ­winter reached nearly 28,000.
Charities claim this country has the highest winter death rate in northern Europe, worse than colder nations such as Finland and Sweden.
About half of the people forced to spend over 10 per cent of their income on energy bills – the official definition of fuel poverty – are aged over 60.
But working families also face a tough time meeting the cost of keeping the central heating turned on as fuel prices continue to rise.
Ann Robinson, director of ­consumer policy at price ­comparison service uswitch.com, said: “Middle-class households are now in fuel poverty.”
National Energy Action estimates that 5.5 million households will have plunged into fuel poverty by early next year due to price rises.
This is up 400,000 on the group’s last estimate and represents 21 per cent of the UK’s 26 million households…
Last winter 70 per cent of household were forced to cut down or ration their energy use because of cost.

I felt pretty bad, because until I started reading about the extent of problems this winter, I hadn’t considered just how bad the situation is. (Bit of a shame this is another thing that it apparently takes larger numbers of middle-class people being affected to draw more news attention.) This is in spite of having dealt with parental disability-related poverty and substandard heating for years, in a colder-winter climate not moderated by the Gulf Stream. This isn’t the coldest month, but it’s supposed to be 10°F/-12°C tonight back home–not unusual. It honestly didn’t seem that cold to me, even though I was aware that last winter was the harshest in 30 years for the UK, and this one is looking to be if anything worse. (Climate change? No…) But, even though it isn’t very cold in absolute terms, if you’re not used to its getting, much less staying, below freezing very often? That’s a pretty big problem.

Then I started thinking about how disabled people just weren’t getting mentioned much.

A rather good report I ran across, from Leonard Cheshire Disability (which I don’t know much about otherwise): Fuel poverty and disability, which ties in with their earlier Disability Poverty in the UK. Both are well worth reading.

More on this theme:

Disability Now’s Turning up the heat on fuel poverty and Fuel figures aid campaign (which provides this quote):

The government has admitted that there are nearly 100,000 disabled people under the age of 60 in fuel poverty.

The figures provide the strongest grounds yet for extending winter fuel payments to people under 60 who receive the middle and higher rates of disability living allowance (DLA)…

The government has already said that in 2005, there were around 1.5 million fuel-poor households in England, of which more than 600,000 contained a disabled person.

But Mr Wicks has now admitted that around 98,000 of the households contained a disabled person under the age of 60, although he said it was impossible to identify how many of them claimed higher rates of DLA.

The figures are likely to have increased since 2005 because of sharp increases in fuel prices.

And a generally worse economic situation.

Also, from Belfast Telegraph: Fuel poverty’s icy grip tightens on our disabled kids

Northern Ireland has the highest level of fuel poverty in western Europe and, as a result, some of the most vulnerable in our society are being put at even greater risk.

A report by the charity, Counting the Costs 2010, found that 34% of families in Northern Ireland with a disabled or sick child are going without heating — over 10% more than in the rest of the UK. [Which doesn’t look too good for the rest of the UK, either — U.]

Frances Murphy, manager of Contact a Family in Northern Ireland, said the statistics highlight the need for Government action to eradicate the problem.

“Families of disabled children are particularly vulnerable to fuel poverty,” she explained.

“They often live on below average incomes and are more likely to be stuck indoors. Many conditions worsen in the cold weather, so parents are forced to have the heating on constantly.”…

“Contact a Family calls on the Government to pilot the extension of a Winter Fuel Allowance of £200 to families with disabled children under five who are in receipt of DLA at the middle to higher rate of the care component and/or the higher rate mobility component.

“We also call on Northern Ireland Electricity and Airtricity to offer social tariffs and promote the use of the priority register to families with disabled children.”

A spokeswoman from the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition said: “With over 10% of Northern Ireland’s population in receipt of Disability Living Allowance, there is a clear danger for those vulnerable households.

“Unlike those aged over 60 there is currently no support offered for individuals who are permanently sick or disabled.

“They must rely on their benefit entitlement to pay for high energy bills.”

The level of the fuel allowance is ludicrous anyway, but really. It’s appalling that people on DLA aren’t even eligible for that.

ETA: A comment from the original post:

I’m on IB+low rate DLA and get nothing. The news always talks about ‘poor pensioners’, but they have a £10k minimum income guarantee (compare that to someone on IB, most of whom get about £80pw), get cold weather allowance, and are often eligible for reduced-price gas & electric.

It’s literally freezing in the house this week. Not one electrical appliance is working properly because of the cold, the kitchen sink froze over the other day, and I’m literally blue with cold. But I’m not 60, so I don’t matter.

Part of my response: “I also love how a lot of people get so zero-sum about this kind of thing, as if bringing up disabled people’s standard of living will inevitably leave pensioners (or anyone else) in the lurch. The manufactured scarcity mentality hurts people.”

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