The energy penalty

Our latest guest post, by Professor Cosmo Graham at Leicester University, outlines the fascinating findings of recent research into the relationship between disability and fuel poverty – a topic that has received little scientific and policy attention to date.

In the UK disabled people are at greater risk than non-disabled people of being on a low income and also of living in homes which are difficult to keep warm, both of which are widely accepted causes of fuel poverty. To compound matters, disabled people are likely to face additional financial pressures on top of everyday living needs, for example, to pay for accessible transport, dietary requirements, aids and equipment among many others.

Energy needs figure prominently in the essential additional costs which confront large numbers of disabled people and families with disabled children. The most obvious reason is the need to keep their home constantly warm, for example, due to physical and medical conditions or the side-effects of treatment.

However, the reasons why many disabled people have additional energy needs are far more varied than is often commonly understood.  We were commissioned by the eaga Charitable Trust to achieve a better understanding of the needs and circumstances of disabled people and families with disabled children in relation to energy.  In addition, we looked at the changes in benefits affecting disabled people and provided recommendations to improve government policies and industry practices. The full report can be found here.

One of the most common causes of extra energy costs is problems with mobility.  Mobility problems lead to people needing more heating to keep warm and spending more time indoors, which will increase their energy costs.  There are a wide range of conditions limiting mobility, the most common being arthritis, which affects some ten million people.  Loss of mobility can also come about through strokes, cerebral palsy and dementia, to mention just some examples.

There are also a variety of conditions and situations which can give rise to a need for higher consumption of energy.  For example, people with cancer often find that the condition and/or medical treatments can make them less active, affect their appetite and make them feel the cold more. Night sweats as a result of treatment and poor circulation can also contribute to people feeling colder than they would otherwise. For these kinds of reasons, heating may well need to be on all night and/or during summer months. Spending more time at home during treatment or recovery also contributes to higher electricity and gas bills for heating and lighting.

The range of conditions which can give rise to extra energy costs is wide, including suffering from HIV, multiple sclerosis, incontinence issues, skin problems, such as eczema, and Parkinsons.  People with spinal injuries in particular need extra help in heating their home and a significant amount of them have reported that they face additional health issues through being unable to heat their home properly.

Finally, families with disabled children are likely to face extra energy costs which arise in varied circumstances, depending on the disability and the needs of the child and family.  Around half the families with disabled children live in or at the margins of poverty as well.  The factors which may increase energy costs include the need to heat the home, as well as possible extra washing and drying costs.  These issues may also extend to the grandparents, something which has not been picked up previously.

When it comes to benefits, Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is counted as part of the income of a family, although it is meant to cover the additional costs faced by a disabled person.  Because it is counted as income, the estimates of fuel poverty are likely to under-state the problem.  We agreed with Consumer Futures that income and fuel poverty statistics should be reformed to exclude disability benefits.

The research shows that the energy needs of disabled people are affected by a range of factors which are likely to lead to additional essential energy consumption, including the need for heating and lighting if people spend a considerable amount of time at home. The choice of ‘heat or eat’ faces an increasing number of people in the population who are struggling with their energy bills. This ‘choice’ is especially stark for disabled people whose health, safety and well-being may be severely jeopardised if they cannot afford essential energy use to meet their needs. In addition, this situation is likely to be contributing to significant extra costs for the NHS and social care services.

Moreover, at the broad policy level, there is little coherence about the ways in which the income levels of disabled people are measured, notably how disability benefits are treated in calculations of income in fuel poverty figures and other official statistics. The inclusion of these benefits as income goes against their intended purpose which is to help meet the additional costs of disability, not everyday living costs. Whilst official figures show that many disabled people are in fuel poverty, these numbers are likely are to be even higher than officially estimated once disability benefits are excluded as income, which should be the case.

At the same time a number of benefit changes are due to be implemented which will in practice impact negatively on many disabled individuals and households, compounding their financial difficulties and ability to afford essential energy consumption. Taken together with rising energy prices, the inevitable result will be a rise in fuel poverty and an ever-strengthening link between disability and fuel poverty unless urgent action is taken and the report makes recommendations for action by government, the regulators and the industry.

The Energy Penalty: Disabled people and fuel poverty was written by Mike George, Cosmo Graham and Linda Lennard of the Centre for Consumers and Essential Services (CCES) at the School of Law, University of Leicester.   Our website is:  http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/law/research/cces  You can contact us at:  cosmo.graham@leicester.ac.uk   The work was made possible by a grant from the eaga Charitable Trust: http://www.eagacharitabletrust.org/

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