4 Comment on the audio clips
In the audio clips, Angela Yih defined fuel poverty as any household which had to spend more than ten per cent of its income on energy, (believed to apply to 700,000 people in Scotland). This is, of course, a rather vague definition, one that conveys nothing about the effectiveness, or otherwise, of what is spent on keeping warm. As you heard, many people spent as much as 20 per cent or more of their income on fuel, and were still unable to heat their homes adequately in winter. However, this raises a broader but related issue: how do you define and measure, not simply fuel poverty, but poverty in general?
The causes of fuel poverty are many. The most fundamental, as Elizabeth Belk described, is having to live on a low income such as that which state benefits or low wages provides. A further problem is that some of the benefits intended to raise the incomes of people who earn a very low wage, or who rely on state benefits, depend on individuals applying for them and undergoing a means test. But a lack of knowledge and the stigma attached to being a welfare claimant prevent many poor people from taking up benefits for which they are eligible. Universal benefits, such as the state pension and child benefit, which do not depend on a means test and an individual application, have neither of these disadvantages. Universal benefits are therefore more effective in tackling poverty. However, precisely because they have the potential to reach everyone, universal benefits are more expensive and are often not favoured by legislators. There is a debate about universal benefits versus a more selective means-tested approach. It is a fundamental one, underlying the efforts of governments to counteract poverty.
Other problems related to fuel poverty that you heard about included ill health, the inability to afford good food, poor housing, having to choose between one essential purchase and another, the stigma of poverty, and debt. These are some of the effects of poverty
Angela Yih argued that the Warm Deal programme, which provided grants to a proportion of households in Scotland for insulation, did not go far enough. For example, it did not tackle the problem of poor and inefficient heating systems, or the fact that many tenements could not be insulated. Furthermore, she was concerned that home owners and those renting from the private sector were not being targeted. She was also concerned that grants were only available to those who claimed means-tested benefits, which meant that those who failed to claim benefits to which they are entitled lost out.
She pointed out that, while the fuel companies argued that disconnection was no longer an issue because of the use of prepayment meters, people were in effect disconnecting themselves when they could not afford to feed the meter. In the end, Angela argued that fuel poverty could only be eliminated by improving poor housing and providing people with a ‘decent income to pay for things’.
The clips illustrate a number of ways in which people and their advisors, such as Ian Traenor, were attempting to tackle the problem of fuel poverty, including:
budgeting and other strategies for dealing realistically with fuel bills and debt;
brokering and advocacy with the energy-providing authorities;
encouraging and facilitating different ways of paying for fuel (meters, smaller payments, etc.);
encouraging the take-up of benefits and correcting the underpayments;
improving people's housing and making it more energy-efficient;
finding alternatives to commercial moneylenders and ‘loan sharks’, for instance credit unions.