EXCL Ministers urged to step up help to stop people choosing between ‘heating and eating’ amid coronavirus crisis
MPs are ‘calling for the extension of the Warm Home Discount scheme ‘for the duration of the coronavirus crisis’
A cross-party group of MPs is demanding that ministers do more to stop people in fuel poverty choosing between “heating and eating” during the coronavirus lockdown.
The coalition of Liberal Democrat, Labour, SNP and Green MPs have written to Business Secretary Alok Sharma to demand a major expansion of a scheme offering struggling households £140 off their energy bills.
The Warm Home Discount, introduced in 2011, provides a one-off credit towards the energy bills of some of the neediest customers in the UK.
It currently applies to all older people who receive the Guarantee Credit part of the Government’s Pension Credit benefit, while energy suppliers have discretion to apply it more broadly.
But the team of MPs - led by Lib Dem climate change spokesperson Wera Hobhouse - is calling for a further 2.5m households to gain access to the help by allowing everyone deemed to be in fuel poverty to claim it during the Covid-19 crisis.
Ms Hobhouse told PoliticsHome: “No-one should ever have to choose between heating their home or eating, let alone in the face of the current health crisis. It is essential that the Government takes action to ensure no one is forced to do so.
“The Government already offers a Warm Home Discount on fuel to the poorest pensioners. Extending this to all those who meet the current definition for fuel poverty – some 2.5 million households - would make an enormous difference to thousands, including many families with children."
According to the Office for National Statistics, 2.53 million households are currently deemed to be in fuel poverty, which means they have essential fuel costs that are above the average level and would be tipped below the poverty line were they to pay without help.
In the letter, signed by 28 MPs including Labour’s Karl Turner, Yasmin Qureshi, Gareth Thomas, Jon Cruddas and Sarah Owen plus the SNP’s Allen Dorans, Neale Harvey, Owen Thompson and Angus McNeil, the Business Secretary is told that the current spike in people working from home will see “many in fuel poverty now struggling even more with their energy bills”.
And the MPs say: “We are calling for the extension of the Warm Home Discount scheme for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. The scheme should be extended to all households that fall into the government definition of fuel poverty. Offering this support will provide families who are currently struggling in the face of the coronavirus with much needed relief on their energy bills.
“But we must also go further. Your government has missed several opportunities to help reduce the 10% of households in England (around 2.5 million) currently in fuel poverty. Once this crisis is over your government must bring forward the long overdue plans for improving the energy efficiency of homes across the country.”
The group is also calling a new government-led programme to retrofit homes with insulation and new heating, a move they say “would reduce fuel poverty and cut emissions from our homes – while slashing energy bills and making our homes warmer”.
They add: “We need to give those in fuel poverty some relief now by extending the Warm Home Discount scheme to all those households and then your government must act to help lift those families out of fuel poverty permanently.
“We hope you will listen to our calls and we will be happy to discuss our ideas with you in more detailed.”
Ms Hobhouse said: “We are also calling for a more focused effort to end fuel poverty permanently. This means Government investment to insulate homes. This would be a win for both society and the environment: with better insulation, less energy is needed, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.”
The call comes after Labour demanded a complete "moratorium" on energy firms being able to cut off people struggling to pay the bills.
Ministers have said hard-up customers on pay-as-you-go energy meters who ask energy firms for help will not see their supplies disconnected.
Under government plans, firms are asked to consider measures including allowing a third party to top up on a customer's behalf, having a discretionary fund added to their account, or being sent a pre-loaded card by the supplier.
But Labour said the Government "must introduce" a total ban on utility disconnections for all customers.