Thursday, 19 June 2014

‘Heat or eat’ – the cost of being poor

People who struggle against poverty frequently have to pay more for their food, fuel and financial services (such as credit and insurance) than those who are better off. Quite literally, there are too many people living in Scotland today who need to choose between heating and eating.

The additional costs of being poor – sometimes described as the Poverty Premium – has been one of the core issues considered by Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission over the last 18 months. The Commission will be reporting on what it has learnt and its recommendations for change at Turning Up the Volume on Poverty on the 21st June 2014.

One of our Commissioners describes her own experience of the Poverty Premium: ‘I have to switch off my electric in the winter as I cannot afford to put money in the meter. Three days before my giro it comes down to ‘heat or eat’ as often I cannot afford to do both.’ At this point, the Poverty Premium ceases to become a fancy concept and becomes a cruel and unjust choice.

Commission members have learnt, in particular, about how energy companies charge those with pre-payment meters significantly more for their electricity and gas than those who have direct debit schemes. We ask: how can it be justifiable that those who have the most pay least for their energy whilst those who have the least pay the most? Follow that logic if you can!

However, it is not enough to blame the big energy companies. They do what they think their customers want. And so the Commission is challenging everyone to write to their energy provider asking them to provide proper choice and value for low income customers – the same value and choice that others get. That is something that we can all do.

However, the Commission wants to go further. We recognise that globally – as well as locally – it is those who live in poverty who are bearing the brunt of climate change. And so we advocate the further development of alternative energies and the establishment of not-for-profit energy companies. We know these companies already exist but we want them to increasingly include people living in fuel poverty within their key stakeholders. While some people spend as little as 3% of their income on paying their fuel bills, others pay as much as 30%.

It is time to end the scandal of fuel poverty. It makes sense for everyone – fuel is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity – and it is achievable. It is time for people to be able to both eat and heat.

Turning Up the Volume on Poverty will be launched on 21st June 2014 in Glasgow’s Woodside Hall. You can book your place here.

Martin Johnstone

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