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Cold comfort – vulnerable groups frozen out of initiatives to keep people warm, report warns

Posted on 10 December 2018

Many disabled people and families with children on low incomes are frozen out of schemes to support fuel poor households, a major new report warns.


Vulnerable groups must be at the centre of the fuel poverty debate, the report says

The report reveals the delivery of energy efficiency policy is variable and patchy, with vulnerable groups in greatest need not always eligible for support or receiving the additional support they need.

More than 120 households and practitioners were interviewed for the report, Policy Pathways to Justice in Energy Efficiency, which is published today by the UK Energy Research Centre, University of York and ACE Research.

Energy demands

The report reveals that disabled people and low income families with children often had higher energy demands within the home compared to other households.

These increased demands are often associated with keeping warm, additional laundry needs, and in some cases using energy intensive equipment such as dehumidifiers and nebulisers. These circumstances lead to both an increased cost in household energy, but also higher risks associated with disconnection and a drop in household temperature. 

However, despite these needs, and the intention of policy to support households in this position, interviewees described accessing information and advice about energy and energy efficiency as a ‘minefield’, high levels of mistrust in the energy sector, and finding it difficult to know where to go and which sources to trust.   

To improve access for vulnerable groups and to meet their needs more effectively, the report recommends there be a greater recognition of the needs of vulnerable groups, more consistent approaches across the UK and better cooperation with non-energy sectors.

The report identifies five key barriers to accessing vital fuel poverty support mechanisms and suggests ways in which access and outcomes can be improved for all. 

  • There needs to be a greater emphasis on the positive impact of intervention to the household rather than a focus on least cost.
  • Households in need are not always eligible and the mechanisms for finding households needs to improve, including greater access to quality data, data matching and data sharing to enable households to be targeted more effectively.
  • Vulnerable customers often are not aware they are eligible for support and mechanisms for finding these people need to improve, together with work to improve the trustworthiness of the schemes promoted.
  • Current programmes focus on technical improvements to buildings rather than the needs of vulnerable groups and there needs to be shift to understanding the needs of these people and how they engage with energy. 
  • The delivery of existing energy efficiency support programmes across the UK is patchy and Government should aim for consistent outcomes for households wherever they live.

Vulnerable groups, the authors argue, must be at the centre of the fuel poverty debate to ensure equal access to fuel poverty initiatives.

Vulnerable households

Dr Carolyn Snell, senior lecturer in Social Policy at the University of York and lead author, said: “Vulnerable groups are not adequately reflected in fuel poverty initiatives and these groups are suffering as a result.”

The report finds that while some initiatives have been designed with vulnerable user needs in mind, these are often missing the mark.

“While there are schemes which have the intention to support vulnerable households, information and advice about energy is a minefield for vulnerable customers to navigate and those trying to access help are often left with an overwhelming sense of frustration and feeling of powerlessness,” added Dr Snell.

The number of people experiencing fuel poverty is increasing by 210,000 to 2.55 million in 2018.

“Energy efficiency and fuel poverty policy have been in continual flux over recent years, and action needs to be taken to ensure that the needs of disabled people and families on low incomes are addressed,” said ACE Research Director Kelly Greer.

 “The number of people experiencing fuel poverty is on the rise and rightly is a policy focus but we urge Government to put people and not just figures at the centre of fuel poverty policy targets to make a meaningful difference”.

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About this research

More than 120 households and practitioners were interviewed for the reportPolicy Pathways to Justice in Energy Efficiency, which is published by the UK Energy Research Centre, University of York and ACE Research. Explore our research