Disabled people, fuel poverty and austerity: policy recommendations from England and Wales

Drawing on a recently completed research project, ‘Fuel Poverty and disabled people: the impact of policy change’, Dr Carolyn Snell provides a research summary and outlines five key policy recommendations for fuel poverty policy.

Carolyn Snell, Mark Bevan and Harriet Thomson, The University of York

Introduction

Disabled people are recognised within UK research and policy as being a group ‘vulnerable’ to fuel poverty, however, there is very limited evidence that considers the relationship between fuel poverty and disabled people, or the impact of welfare reform and fuel poverty policy on disabled people.  Given this gap in knowledge Eaga Charitable Trust funded the Department of Social Policy and Social Work and Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York to investigate the relationship between fuel poverty and disability in the context of policy change.

The project comprised of an evidence review, a statistical analysis of the 2010-2011 English Housing Survey (EHS) (the dataset used in official fuel poverty calculations), qualitative interviews with 16 stakeholders working in agencies that address fuel poverty, and 19 interviews with disabled people and the parents of disabled children.   Five key policy recommendations were made and are summarised below.  For full project reports see www.eagacharitabletrust.org or http://www.york.ac.uk/spsw/staff/carolyn-snell/#tab-2

Key finding one

The statistical analysis of the EHS found higher than average rates of fuel poverty amongst households containing disabled people.   However, official calculations of fuel poverty in England and Wales do not account for the elevated energy needs of people with specific impairments or conditions (instead making relatively universal assumptions about required household energy spend), and as such are likely to underrepresent the extent to which some disabled people are struggling to pay for energy costs, or are risking their health by not using sufficient energy.  The qualitative evidence backed this up, demonstrating a higher need for both heat and energy due to particular impairments; longer periods of time spent in the home, and the difficulties associated with paying for this.

Recommendation:  Ensure that the needs of disabled people are fully acknowledged within relevant fuel poverty policy, recognising that needs are diverse, fluctuating, nuanced, and in some instances masked by official statistics.  Recognition of the problem should not be limited to fuel poverty policymakers, but also those working in other relevant areas such as health and social care.   Given the difficulties associated with identifying and targeting fuel poor disabled people, local networks and the engagement of the health sector may help support those in most need.

 Key finding two

Fuel poverty rates were found to increase when disability related welfare payments (such as Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and Attendance Allowance (AA)) are removed from calculations of income. This was recommended by Sir John Hills in the 2012 Fuel Poverty Review, and is an argument present in general discussions about the measurement of poverty.   The qualitative findings also demonstrated the pressure being put on benefits such as DLA to be used repeatedly as a form of everyday household finance.

Recommendation: As recommended in the Fuel Poverty Review, disability benefits such as DLA and AA should not be treated as disposable income in the measurement of fuel poverty.  More generally, policymakers and those working in front line agencies need to be far more aware of the multiple claims being made on DLA.   The same principle should be applied to new disability related benefits such as Personal Independence Payments.

Key finding three

The evidence review, statistical and qualitative analysis demonstrated a mismatch between the provision of fuel poverty support and those in most need.  For example, single households composed of disabled people under the age of 60 were found to have high fuel poverty levels, yet were not necessarily able to access the Warm Home Discount Scheme, one of the few forms of support aimed at lowering energy bills. This group was also found to be more vulnerable to other cuts and changes in welfare than those of retirement age.

Recommendation:  Include disability as a qualifying factor for fuel poverty alleviation measures.  Consider the presence of a disabled household member as a qualifying factor for measures (rather than simply the named bill payer), and ensure that holders of the Warm Home Discount Scheme can switch energy providers without losing their discount.

Key finding four

Fuel poverty rates were found to be highest in the private rented sector, and the qualitative findings also highlighted concerns about this amongst key stakeholders and some of the private tenants who were interviewed. Disabled people may be especially disadvantaged here given the limited supply of appropriate housing in this tenure.

Recommendation: address housing conditions in the private rented sector as a matter of urgency.  The links between poor health and role of the health and social care sector may be crucial here, for example, through the provision of innovative schemes such as energy on prescription[1].

Key finding five

The statistical analysis found that on average more households containing disabled people were on prepayment meters for their gas (where connected) and electricity supply.  Whilst there is evidence within the qualitative interviews that this can help manage household bills and budgeting, concerns were raised by the key stakeholders about risks of self disconnection and higher energy charges, and the practical difficulties of using them.  Whilst it is illegal to disconnect vulnerable customers in the winter, installing a prepayment meter is not.  This could be considered as devolving disconnection decisions to the bill payer. Given what is known within the health literature about under heating the greater potential for self disconnection could be highly dangerous for health.

Recommendation: Serious attention should be paid to the suitability of prepayment meters for disabled people, in terms of their usability, and also given the elevated risks associated with self disconnection. Again, a broader understanding of this issue amongst other sectors in direct contact with disabled people (such as health and social care) may help address self disconnection more urgently.

Conclusion

The official definition of fuel poverty changed over the course of this project, moving from an income threshold definition based on a household needing to spend more than 10 per cent of its income in order to maintain an adequate heating regime, to the more complex Low Income High Cost measure.   Whilst many have applauded this new definition for being less sensitive to energy prices and more focused on low income households, the overall effect is a substantial lowering of fuel poverty rates.    However, we argue that disabled people, especially those on low income benefits and with high energy needs may still experience cold, damp housing, and/or energy debt, regardless of whether or not they are defined as fuel poor. Whilst official measures continue to neglect the actual energy needs of some disabled people, it is essential that policymakers and practitioners recognise the diverse, nuanced, fluctuating needs that some disabled people have, and work to support these. In the current climate, the assumption that disability related benefits such as DLA and AA can be used for energy payments is highly flawed, given the many other claims being made on these benefits.


[1] See for example http://www.tadea-uk.com/Public-Services/NHS/Energy-on-prescription

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