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Disabled households are at particular risk of extreme fuel poverty, new report finds

Households where someone lives with a disability are at highest risk of experiencing fuel poverty, according to a new report from the UCL Institute of Health Equity.

Led by Sir Michael Marmot, the report found that 55% of UK households are forecast to fall into fuel poverty by January 2023 without additional interventions. This will lead to greater damage to health and higher rates of death associated with living in a cold home.

Other groups at most risk include low income, ethnic minority households and those with dependent children.

A household is in fuel poverty if they are on a low income and face high costs of keeping adequately warm and other basic energy services. Fuel poverty is driven by three main factors: household income, the current cost of energy and the energy efficiency of a home.

The report said that living with a disability increases the risk of experiencing fuel poverty due to a reduced income. Some 27%
of households that include someone who is disabled are on a low income when measured before housing costs, compared with 15% of households with no disability.

Their cost of living is higher as disabled people face higher energy bills due to having additional needs (such as medical equipment that requires a power source) and spending longer periods at home.

Fuel poverty will lead to inequalities that will last a lifetime

Sir Michael Marmot said that the government needs to act, and act right now as it is clear we are facing a significant humanitarian crisis with thousands losing their lives and millions of children’s development blighted, leading to inequalities that will last a lifetime.

He added: “Warm homes, nutritious food and a stable job are vital building blocks for health. In addition to the effect of cold homes on mental and physical illness, living on a low income does much damage. If we are constantly worrying about making ends meet it puts a strain on our bodies, resulting in increased stress, with effects on the heart and blood vessels and a disordered immune system.

“This type of living environment will mean thousands of people will die earlier than they should, and, in addition to lung damage in children, the toxic stress can permanently affect their brain development.

“In a rich country like the UK, the idea that more than half of households should face fuel poverty is a sad judgement of the management of our affairs. It is an absolute travesty that energy companies are raking in billions of pounds in profits and tax cuts are being suggested while half the population is facing shortened lives and severe hardship through no fault of their own.”

The report found that illnesses linked to cold, damp and dangerous homes cost the NHS more than £2.5 billion a year. In addition, an estimated 63,000 people died in England 2020-21 as a result of excess winter deaths to which cold homes and fuel poverty also contributed, with some 10% directly attributable to fuel poverty.

It said that local authorities in partnership with public health are well placed to address fuel poverty but national government must address the underlying causes of fuel poverty – national programmes had either stalled or received reduced funding prior to the pandemic.

Key recommendations from the report include:

  • Urgent setting up of a national fuel poverty strategy, with ring-fenced funding, to enable local government to plan and support local populations, proportionate to need, sustainably
  • National policy interventions need to address the twin challenge of household incomes and energy need – solutions include introducing a social tariff (qualifying households offered a discounted rate on energy bills), lowering energy prices for everyone and recouping some of the cost through irises in income tax and ramping up windfall taxes on energy companies
  • For the strategy to work long-term, the underlying root causes of fuel poverty must be addressed, including the vital building blocks for health such as warm homes, nutritious food, stable jobs and having enough money to lead a healthy life and education
  • As Citizen’s Advice (CA) has shown, it is well placed to help households vulnerable to fuel poverty access all their entitled benefits (estimates suggest billions of pounds of benefits go unclaimed each year)
  • At local level health providers should implement the NICE guidelines on health risks of cold homes e.g., healthcare workers working proactively to improve housing quality.

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