Fuel poverty in Scotland
Fuel poverty in Scotland

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Fuel poverty in Scotland

3 Audio assets

3.1 Clips 1 to 3

Clip 1

This first clip introduces the issue of fuel poverty.

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Transcript: Clip 1

Helen Robinson
People on low incomes come upon a whole range of problems unknown to those who are better off. In this programme you will hear about just one issue that lack of money entails, the struggle to keep warm. However you measure it, fuel poverty is a particular problem in Scotland.
Shop assistant
You're buying electric tonight.
Woman
Yes.
Shop assistant
Could you put your five pound on the glass, please.
Woman
No problem.
For one thing you couldn't really afford it. I mean, I was putting ten pound worth of cards in some weeks, and it was practically finished, you know what I mean, and I was only using one fire.
Man
But I also had this electric heater as well so, I was alright like that. And I had three hot water bottles in my bed, because you needed them ... because it was a very cold dark place.
Jacqueline Carlin
I don't know what the answer is to the price of fuel. It's a hard one for people, especially in the winters. We have very, very severe winters sometimes up here, and the money's not there to pay for that.
Woman
You get off the bus at Hamilton, and you're right at the district council offices. So you go in there and you pay your poll tax ... come out of there and go into the Dunfermline ... you pay your mortgage. Go down the street and round the corner, and that is you in to pay your electricity. Once you have done all those three things, what you have got left has got to feed you for the whole week, right. If you pay your rent, your electricity ... if you don't have enough to live on, you go and shut that door, and nobody needs to know.
Angela Yih
In Scotland the cold is associated with the excess number of winter deaths that we have each year. And we have a higher rate of winter deaths in Scotland, than the UK. For instance, if you compare it to countries like Scandinavia, the concept of excess death in winters is new to them. They don't quite know what we mean.
Helen Robinson
Jacqui Carlin works in a community advice centre in Dundee. In her view the signs of poverty are becoming more visible.
Jacqueline Carlin
Well, I think over the last ten years or so, like every place, the work situation has worsened. There's a lot of factories that we had here have closed down. Unemployment in itself is the lack of the ability to do anything with your family ... that people don't have the money to do anything. You now, to make their lives better, the ability to buy food - decent food, heat their properties, things like that ... you know ... you can see the poverty now, whereas before it was probably a bit more hidden.
Helen Robinson
Angela Yih from Age Concern Scotland, details the scale of the problem.
Angela Yih
The statistics that we have at the moment shows about seven hundred and thirty eight thousand households having to spend more than ten percent of their income on energy. And that's a fairly accepted definition of fuel poverty. If you have to spend more, then you're fuel poor. In those figures, sixty nine thousand older householders, people whose houses are headed by someone over sixty, have faced extreme fuel poverty. That means they would really need to spend more than twenty percent of their income.
Helen Robinson
Ian Treanor is an Energy Advisor in Dundee. He's familiar with the types of housing in the city, and the problem of heating.
Ian Treanor
Well these are traditional Scottish tenement blocks, as we call them. They were built either just at the turn of the century, or just after ... and it’s traditional stone. The walls here are sometimes two to three feet thick and, traditionally, they're quite large room in some of these blocks. So a lot of people find a problem actually heating these houses. Traditionally, we find too that it's normally bottled gas where there's no central heating, and this causes all sorts of problems - horrendous condensation and, of course, that affects the health life, particularly in the winter, when condensation really is excessive.
And then, when we turn our backs here, we look to the skyscrapers that we have in Dundee here. And, when we look at this - at the hill town, as the name suggests - we're sitting fairly high up from the city centre in Dundee itself. And these blocks really are prominent when you come across and see the skyline of Dundee. And, again, when we look at some of the problems involved, all electrically centrally heated ... but there's very, very few people in these blocks actually use the heating. If they were to put their central heating on now, you'd be talking about fifty pound a month to try and keep that warm. That's only warm. That's not really a comfortable heat.
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Clip 2

In this clip, Ian Traenor talks about SCARF, and the help he was able to offer to Thomas Marnie.

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Transcript: Clip 2

Helen Robinson
Working in collaboration with Dundee city council, Ian Treanor runs SCARF.
Ian Treanor
Nice to see you.
Thomas
Nice to see you.
Ian Treanor
SCARF - what it stands for is to Save Cash and Reduce Fuel. So we're interested in saving householders cash, and also reducing the amount of fuel that they actually need. So they go hand-in-hand together. The biggest impact we try to make is with the fuel poor. In Scotland, we do have a very high amount of people that suffer from fuel poverty at the moment.
SCARF actually covers Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire. It covers the city of Dundee and also Perth and Kinross, which is over twelve and a half thousand square miles. So we really cover a vast amount of the east coast of Scotland, and we do tackle different projects, and offer help wherever we can relating to energy matters.
Ian Treanor
You're a lot more chirpy than what you were along in the old house like, because I felt that you had a lot of problems along there.
Thomas Marnie
I got over them somehow.
Helen Robinson
Thomas Marnie is one of the people Ian is helping. Before moving to his present accommodation, he'd run into serious difficulties with paying his bills.
Thomas Marnie
Well, the place I used to live was a bedsit flat - one room, a toilet and a kitchen with a gas fire and an electric meter. And it was a tiny wee place. It was your bedroom, your dining-room, everything was in the one place. And there was a little wee ... you could touch the walls actually, near enough. So it was a very dull and dreary place to live, to be honest with you.
Now, when I was up in the morning, had a wash and shave and something to eat, I was glad to get out ... till late at night ... to come back, and then I was just going to go to my bed. Didn't need to sit and look at four walls, just had the gas heating. But, as I said, sometimes it'd run out and I couldn't afford to go to the post office and buy more. So, I just decided not to use it.
Ian Treanor
The situation was that Mr Marnie had no gas supply and the amount outstanding was fifty four pounds, which is a really a nominal sum. So what we done was got some details from Mr Marnie, contacted Scottish Gas, who informed us that he'd been in this situation for over three years. And so we asked ... could they restore the gas supply that night? And, eventually, they seen reason and connected the gas supply that night. We got that back on, and what we agreed to do was monitor the gas consumption, and make sure this never happened again.
So we've been entering into dialogue with Scottish Gas, just to try and resolve this. We feel that they've got some responsibility in the matter too ... that they've just left him for over three years. So what we've done is contacted Chest, Heart and Stroke, Scotland, who agreed that they would pay the gas bill.
Helen Robinson
Mr Marnie spent his life working in the polypropylene fibre business, which took its toll on his health.
Thomas Marnie
In that work, I was there for twenty three years, and fifteen year out of that, I was breathing in polythene dust twelve hours a day. When I was told I had to see the work’s doctor, he told me I had emphysema ... wasn't fit for work any longer. So I saw the Director, and he says, “Sorry Mr Marnie, but we'll have to pay you off through ill health”.
The benefit I get is incapacity and the pension from my work. The good thing about it is that it's ... I get my incapacity weekly. Pension I get monthly, which is a severely small pension. It's only fifteen pound a week, sixty five pound a month. Well, as I said, by the time I was off my work, we had to pay the full rent, which is about thirty pound a week for one poky wee place ... electric to get, gas to get, food to get, clothes to get.
So I just skipped my rent occasional times, as well as skipping the gas and skipping the electric. I had to do it ... just couldn't do nothing else. So, as I said, you had to rob Peter to pay Paul, or the vice- versa... couldn't do everything. Then what got you in deeper trouble … you pay your rent, you had ten pound left … the electric goes off, so you're skint. You have no money. So what do you do? You go to some of your friends and borrow a tenner, which you get dead easy. But you're putting yourself in a worse mess, because you're going to rob somebody to pay that ten pound back. And somebody doesn't get paid that week. So it's just a vicious circle.
Helen Robinson
Mr Marnie ended up in debt to the city council, but it recouped its money when he was moved from his single room to the slightly larger flat that he now occupies.
Thomas Marnie
Through the council's moving you, you got fifteen hundred pound for the inconvenience, and whatever. But I didn't get fifteen hundred pound. They kept a thousand pound. I got five hundred pound. Me and the council are not very good friends at the moment, but that's life. Some people are worse off than me. So that's the story.
Helen Robinson
Now that Mr Marnie is in his new flat and with both gas and electricity connected, lan's offering to give him ongoing advice on energy use.
Ian Treanor
What I came to do is to really act on your behalf and to say to the likes of Scottish Gas and Hydro Electric that the way that they deal with customers is unrealistic at times and unsympathetic. And we really need to sit down and say that when people have one problem, normally it's multiple problems. So we have to tackle them one by one and let them understand that there are numerous problems there. But, as always, we're glad that we've got that at the back of us.
So we're in here now. What we want to do is just make sure that … certainly the gas and electric … that they never get out of hand again. And, if we could get a weekly payment plan and, if we could monitor them and make sure that we're keeping them under control, then really that's two problems that we've really got out the way, anyway. Do you think that's reasonable?
Thomas Marnie
Oh yes, I agree with that and I'm going to try my best to do it, like … while all the money's there … if I've got it. If it's not there, I can't pay it. But I'll manage five pound a week, and ten pound for the electric.
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Clip 3

This clip focuses on the problems of fuel bills and debt, which are faced by those on low incomes.

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Helen Robinson
Debt is probably the biggest problem that Ian Treanor comes across.
Ian Treanor
The most common one is when they have a bill, maybe seven, eight hundred pounds. They come to us and say, “We cannot pay this”. And I normally ask them, “Have you contacted the utility?” And they say “Yeah”. And I ask them, “What kind of offer have they made for you to pay this account?” And, based on that information, I'll go back to the utility and say, “Well you really should be offering them something better than what you have offered them”.
Helen Robinson
Jackie Carlin, who's now an Advice Worker, has experienced debt herself. A friend told her that a dry meter would be cheaper to run.
Jacqueline Carlin
It's just a meter that you don't have to pay it as you go. They bill you. So I got that one in and they didn't come to read it for a year. And, although I kept saying, “I'm going to have to phone them,” you just … it's not priority. And it was a year before I actually got into gear and said, “Look, I'm going to have to phone them”.
The Hydro Electric sent me a bill for nine hundred pounds, which I couldn't afford to pay at once. They gave me seven days to pay it. Then they asked me for fifty seven pounds a week, which was approximately three quarters of my income support per week … which was unbelievable, because there was no way I could live off that.
Helen Robinson
Ian Treanor helped her out as well.
Ian Treanor
I'd worked for Hydro Electric in a fairly senior position for sixteen years, so I know the billing system fairly well. I discovered that there was an inaccuracy on the billing system. So, based on that, they actually gave her a hundred pound reduction on the bill. We were then able to have a card meter installed. And we recovered that outstanding money at two pound fifty per week, which is a much more sensible option because, if the utilities make unrealistic payment requests, the tenant will default.
And, of course, the whole scenario starts up again. The debt builds up again. They come back to us. So it's a two way thing that we are actually trying to ask them to act responsibly. And really we make an agreement, then let's stick to this agreement, like, because there's no point exacerbating the situation that they keep continually coming back to us. So we have to empower them to ... “Let's act sensibly here”.
Helen Robinson
The use of card meters can be a solution, but they're not without their drawbacks.
Ian Treanor
It is a higher rate as such, because they never really enjoy any of the benefits that a direct debit customer would enjoy. They would enjoy a four percent discount. But my understanding … I see someone who's going to the post office every week and paying fifteen pound is just as good as a direct debit customer. But these benefits are never passed on to the quantum meter customers, or the card meter customers, as we like to know them.
Jackie Carlin
I also know numerous amounts of people who get into problems with their electricity because of not being able to pay. And they get their card meters, and they cut their cards and they can use it twice. But they don't realise that, when their bill eventually … when their meter's eventually read, they haven't actually bought the amount of cards that they're using. So they're going to be billed anyway, and the cycle goes on again. People can't afford to pay them.
Ian Treanor
Others have looked at other means of having electricity free of charge. They've looked at what we call a "black box". That's where you can actually connect this to the meter, and it actually starts reversing the dials on the meter. Yeah, there's quite a cottage industry involved in that, where you could physically buy them outright, or you could actually hire them.
It's got to such a stage that people know exactly when the meter reader's coming. They've got a fair idea when they come. So what they do is they use them in between this year, for perhaps six months of the year. Normally, you would tend to think that they would maybe receive bills of thirty, forty pound. But they're quite sensible that they still receive bills of maybe two three hundred pound. But, in fact, they're maybe using four, five, six hundred pounds worth of electricity. So some of them are quite shrewd in how they operate that. Others are not so worldly-wise and they end up with bills of ten pound. And Hydro Electric know … “Yeah, there's something going on here. We have to find out what's happening there”. And they normally do.
Helen Robinson
Other people, who have no wish to defraud the utility companies, often make ends meet in a very simple way, as Angela Yih from Age Concern Scotland explains.
Angela Yih
I think older people are some … certainly many older people would be likely not to spend the amount of money they need to keep their houses warm, because they're worried about bills, they're worried about getting into debt. We know that many older people choose pre-payment meters, for instance, which an expensive way of paying for your fuel. And the reason they do that is that they're basically assured that they won't get a bill they can't pay. But, in effect, they disconnect themselves if they can no longer afford to feed the meter. And we're working with Scottish Power to try and persuade them to change the system where pre-payment fuel meters don't cost any more. There're shouldn't be the slightest bit of extra charge because, after all, people are paying in advance.
I also think older people like to have a range of options about methods of payment. And many of them like to pay cash in small sums, which doesn't appeal to many of the fuel suppliers. But, nevertheless, the sort of profits that these companies make, and the fact that they're delivering a service that is everyone's right, well we would say, “You just have to make these allowances”. People should have options to pay the way that suits them. People who want to pay by direct debit should be allowed to do so. People who want to pay with cash should do so. And we must remember that many people on lower incomes, older people especially, don't have bank accounts. And banks won't allow you to open one unless you've got a fairly regular income.
Helen Robinson
Jackie Carlin's experience in the Dundee district of Charleston also confirms what Angela says.
Jacqueline Carlin
It's very hard to get a bank account if you haven't got a job anyway. So, yeah, a lot of people don't have bank accounts. We've got something in Charleston called the Charleston Credit Union, which started up a few years ago. And that's like a people's bank. And, yes, it's easier for the people to access because it's here in Charleston. And the collections are twice a week, and people can borrow from there … but, obviously, only so much … you know part of what ever they've put in. So that makes it easier for the people to actually own a bank account and borrow.
That's the only facility, apart from if they go to lenders like Provident … people like that. And then they're paying horrendous interest on that. I know first hand, you know, how much they take back on that. Yeah, you find more people are going towards these people, but that's their only source of getting a loan - either the Credit Union or these Providents, and different places like that.
Thomas Marnie
They're money lenders. They rob you left, right and centre. If you borrowed a thousand pound from them, you're paying over two thousand pound back … never go to a money lender. You know why I've not got any grey hair? Because I didn't worry with paying them back. Let them worry about me paying them. Okay, they send you letters and they call to the house and that. At the end of the day, they cannot throw you in jail. Tell them a story, and they go away happy. “Oh we'll be in next week, and we'll give you a wee bit extra.” That's all they want to hear. Oh no, don't get involved with the money lenders.
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