THE CHOICE BETWEEN HEATING OR EATING: FOOD AND ENERGY POVERTY IN LONDON

Energy poverty may not be something that most of us have to worry about. However according to the Department for Energy and Climate Change in 2013, 2.35 million or 10% of people in England lived in fuel povertyMichele Lawrence the manager of the Brent food bank experiences the effects of fuel poverty first hand. “We’ve had mothers coming here after doing the school run, to have a bit of warmth, unable to go home because their houses are freezing. People are faced with the choice of buying food or heating their home, some are unable to do either.”

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Last year Brent food bank, run by The Trussell Trust, helped 2075 people, including around 675 children under 16. 26% of people used the Food bank due to delays in receiving their benefits, 18% due to benefit changes and 12% were due to having a low income. Jaime who was visiting the food bank to borrow a small heater describes the hardships he faces. “I think I went without gas for about four weeks, and having to stand at a kitchen sink with a boiled kettle… it’s degrading.”

The problem of fuel poverty is only exacerbated by the role of prepayment meters. Prepayment meters have been criticised for charging higher energy rates to those least able to afford it. Meters are installed when the client has been unable to pay the energy bill on time, or in some cases come preinstalled in homes. Dawn Butler, MP for Brent has been fighting for those living in energy poverty through her Pre-Pay Rip Off campaign. “Pre-Pay Rip Off is about those people who essentially cannot afford direct debit…they are actually having to pay more for their fuel than people on direct debit. It doesn’t make sense, why are those people who are least able to pay being forced to pay more… it works out to 1.3 billion pounds they are overpaying a year.”

Jamie agrees with the injustice of prepayment meters. “Most people who have prepayment meters are in that position because they have to be and can only afford to pay for what they use, so why should they be charged any extra.” The rise of energy and food poverty has led to a stark rise in destitution. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about 1,252,000 people, including 312,000 children were destitute in the UK at some point during 2015 (defined as when they can not afford to buy the essentials).

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 14.36.22Food bank charity The Trussell Trust and Npower opened a new fuel bank in Brent this April. This continues an expansion of fuel banks that will see ten new areas in the first half of 2016 open a fuel voucher program. The voucher will provide two weeks worth of energy. The value will be worth £30 throughout summer and £49 during the winter months. Dawn Butler feels that this support is essential. “This fuel voucher will mean they will be able to get electricity or gas for three days and cook the food they got. Its kind of making it a bit more dignified, those people who are suffering feel that everything has been taking from. They have to decide whether to eat or whether to heat, they having to decide whether to walk or take the bus and this just gives them a bit of dignity.”
A Department for Energy and Climate Change spokesmen responding to our feature stated. “Government schemes have already helped make more than one million British homes warmer over the past three years, generating over £6 billion in potential lifetime bill savings for the most vulnerable. But there is still more to be done, which is why there will be a reformed supplier obligation to tackle the root cause of fuel poverty and help achieve our target of insulating 1 million more homes by 2020.”

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But for fuel voucher recipients like Karen she stresses that the government has not done enough, feeling that delays in her benefits has put her in a worse situation. “Its distressing, upsetting, its embarrassing. You can’t invite people round because you can’t put your heating on and can’t do anything for them. You don’t want to wake up in the morning.” With the report showing that last year British Gas made 31% profits in 2015, energy poverty is sure to continue being a conscientious issue. Although there is a lot of work that needs to be done it is clear to see the devastating consequences.

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