Fuel poverty in the United Kingdom

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In the United Kingdom fuel poverty is said to occur when, in order to heat its home to an adequate standard of warmth, a household needs to spend more than 10% of its income on total fuel use. Adequate warmth is generally defined to be 21 °C in the main living room and 18 °C in other occupied rooms during daytime hours, with lower temperatures at night, following the recommendations of the World Health Organization. Fuel poverty is not just about access to heating as the definition of fuel is taken to include all expenditure on domestic energy, including that used for hot water, cooling, lights and appliances. This definition is essentially that first established by Dr Brenda Boardman in her book entitled Fuel Poverty, first published in 1991[1], although fuel poverty has been the focus of political action since the early 1970s [2].

Other definitions[edit]

There are, however, a variety of different ways of considering household income when measuring fuel poverty. The UK definition does not, for example, take account of the amount that a household actually spends on fuel, nor the amount available for the household to spend on fuel after other costs have been met.

The UK Government’s preferred definition of household income includes income from housing-related benefits in the calculation of household income. Other estimates of the extent of fuel poverty exclude benefits from household income. The charity National Energy Action (NEA) regards both these definitions as unacceptable and believes that disposable income (after the deduction of housing costs) should be used in the definition of fuel poverty.

On 14 March 2011, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change announced he had asked Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics to lead a review of the fuel poverty definition and target.[3] The interim report of this independent review was published on 19 October 2011.[4] On page 19 of the interim report, Hill suggests redefining a fuel poor household as one that has required fuel costs that are above the median level, and were they to spend that amount, would be left with a residual income below the official poverty line. No official action has yet been taken on this suggestion.

Households in fuel poverty[edit]

In early 2008 it was estimated by Energywatch that there were around 4.4 million households in fuel poverty in the UK, with just over 3 million in England alone.[5] This was more than double the number in 2003.

2008 saw significant price increases of approximately 45% by energy companies on gas and electric. In early 2009 the companies declared they were to drop their prices, but only a 10% reduction was seen across the board and this did not happen, with the exception of British Gas, until March 31, once the worst of the winter was over. Research from NEA showed that as of March 2009 over 5 million households across the UK were living in fuel poverty.

In April 2011 a YouGov survey indicated that the number of households in fuel poverty had risen to 6.3 million households, representing approximately 24% of all households in the UK.

The UK Government's 2015 Fuel Poverty Report showed that 4.5 million households, or 17% of UK households, were in fuel poverty.[6]

Excess winter deaths[edit]

Excess winter deaths are defined by the Office for National Statistics as the difference between the number of deaths during the four winter months (December to March) and the average number of deaths during the preceding autumn (August to November) and the following summer (April to July).

Although the phenomenon of excess winter deaths is not unique to the United Kingdom, the incidence is markedly higher than for countries with similar climates and living standards. England has an 18% rise in deaths during the winter, on average, whereas Finland has a 10% increase, Germany and the Netherlands have 11%.[7]

Since 2000, excess winter deaths in England and Wales remained generally at around 25,000. For the period of 2007-2008 the number of excess winter deaths was 27,480 of which the Hill reporte estimated that around 10% were caused directly by fuel poverty.[8] The winter of 2008-2009 the coldest in 10 years, and the Office for National Statistics estimated there were a total of 36,700, an increase of 49% over the previous year, which represents a 23.8% rise in deaths during the winter.[9]

Deaths from hypothermia among UK pensioners almost doubled during the 5 years up to 2012, a time when several cold winters combined with largescale increases in energy prices.

The number of pensioners dying from hypothermia has nearly doubled in five years, a period when a succession of cold winters has been coupled with drastic rises in energy bills.[10] Exposure to the cold does affect the number of winter deaths‚ but deaths from other cold related causes are very much more common than it is for the cold to kill people directly. In the main these deaths are from respiratory or cardio-vascular ailments. Overall deaths are from heart attacks‚ strokes‚ bronchial and other conditions‚ and may often occur several days after exposure to the cold. Spending too long in the cold will lower the body temperature which can often aggravate circulatory diseases‚ which can lead to strokes and heart attacks or respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

Under the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 the Government is obliged to report annual progress in cutting the number of households in which one or more persons are living in fuel poverty.

Action programmes[edit]

The UK's main programme targeting fuel poverty is the Energy Company Obligation.

The Home Heat Helpline - 0800 33 66 99 - can provide assistance to the following vulnerable groups:

  • Advice on social tariffs – typically a 20% saving
  • Access to the Priority Service Register, with free annual gas appliance safety checks, passwords for official gas and electricity-related callers. Third party, Braille, large print and talking billing
  • Grants for free home insulation regardless of who owns the property and no means testing for the over 70s. Absolute right for them to receive free cavity wall and loft insulation or free top-ups to modern standards. Same help to all households in receipt of Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance (Incapacity Benefit) Single Parent Allowance or households with young children with an annual income of less than £14,600.
  • Flexible payment options for customers in fuel debt
  • A disconnection safety net, ensuring no vulnerable customer will be knowingly disconnected

The Home Heat Helpline also recognises that those most in need of help are often those least able to access it so the helpline now accepts third party applications.

Parliamentary Inquiry[edit]

The UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change recently launched an inquiry on home energy efficiency in September 2015.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ B. Boardman, Fuel poverty: from cold homes to affordable warmth, Belhaven Press, London 1991
  2. ^ Kennard, Harry (December 7, 2016). "A short history of fuel poverty".
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-04-27. Retrieved 2011-07-11.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-10-27. Retrieved 2011-12-05.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ Tim Webb (The Observer) (2008-01-20). "Fury as fuel poverty soars close to a 10-year record". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2008-05-09.
  6. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2016-02-18.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ Department of Health, 2009 ANNUAL REPORT OF THE CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER.
  8. ^ "How can you tell whether your household is fuel poor?". Choose.net. 2012-01-12. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
  9. ^ Office for National Statistics, Excess winter mortality in England and Wales: 2008/09 (provisional).
  10. ^ Martin, Daniel (2012-02-13). "Frozen to death as fuel bills soar: Hypothermia cases among the elderly double in five years". Dailymail.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
  11. ^ "Home energy efficiency and demand reduction inquiry - UK Parliament". Parliament.uk. 2015-09-15. Retrieved 2016-12-08.

External links[edit]

In the media