CITIZENS Advice advisors say calls coming in from elderly and vulnerable people worried about paying their fuel bills have risen by a quarter since the start of the energy crisis.
The East Dorset and Purbeck office represents Citizens Advice all over Dorset in its partnership with Dorset Community Foundation’s Surviving Winter appeal.
The appeal gives grants of £200 to help people aged over 60 or those over 50 with disabilities living in fuel poverty to help with heating bills. The community foundation encourages anyone who receives their government Winter Fuel Payment, which can be as much as £200, but feels they don’t need all or some of it, to donate it to the appeal.
Citizens Advice project manager Kate Pryce said calls are up 23 per cent on last year with the escalating energy costs and rising household bills being to blame. This week inflation hit 5.8 per cent while the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said in a poverty report that lower-income families could be spending more than half their income on energy bills if the energy price cap is lifted in April. Bills are predicted to rise by up to £700 a year.
“With all of the things that have been going on with the increases in the price of energy and the cost of living, that has had a huge knock-on effect and that has meant we are seeing people who wouldn’t have come to us a year ago,” she said.
“Before they have always managed, even though it may have been difficult. We are actually seeing more people coming in and asking for help who would never have approached us before.”
She said people can only afford a set amount for food or heating so when the bills go up they are forced into drastic choices. “We are finding people are very anxious about getting into debt and in a lot of cases they are self-disconnecting – turning their heating off, switching off lights,” she said.
“People want to be energy efficient but this is a different degree, they are very worried and they are going to bed early so they don’t have to have the heating and the lights on. It’s quite a sad inditement of the situation. We have had people who are watching their smart meter all the time and they are worrying how they are going to pay for it.”
We are finding people are very anxious about getting into debt and in a lot of cases they are self-disconnecting – turning their heating off, switching off lights
Last year the charity was able to help people switch to lower tariffs but with 28 companies now having gone to the wall, larger suppliers are not offering cheaper deals.
Project supervisor Ros Dignan said people are coming to the charity with heartbreaking stories. She said: “We had an 89-year-old lady on a state pension who is in social housing and still on a coin meter, which is a much higher tariff. She is not even eligible for the government’s Warm Homes Discount because the landlord controls the meter.
“She tried to tell us that she is okay and she is managing but once you talk to her she admitted she is really vulnerable to the cold because of her health conditions, she struggles with her mobility so she is badly affected by the cold.”
CAB advisors are working with other agencies to have her heating improved but in the meantime the £200 Surviving Winter grant is bridging the gap so that she can have her heating on.
“Having a Surviving Winter grant has made a huge difference because it means she has a bit of breathing space for other agencies to do a survey into what heating support she needs,” she said.
Another elderly recipient told her: “You haven’t just helped me, you’ve given me the tools to help myself. You’ve changed my mindset and I can’t thank you enough.”
Dorset Community Foundation director Grant Robson said the effects of the cost of living crisis will be felt far longer than just this winter. “Rising prices are going to drive more people deeper into poverty and that will have increase demand not just on our wonderful Surviving Winter partner but on every grass roots voluntary group and charity in Dorset who are supporting people on low incomes,” he said.
“That means foodbanks as well as groups supporting mental health, young families and those who are lonely and isolated.
“It is thanks to our donors and partners that we are able to help so many of these groups. We have awarded more than £2 million in grants since the start of the pandemic, but it is clear that we are going to need even more support so that we can help these amazing groups keep pace with the demand being placed on them.”
Donate to the Surviving Winter appeal here and for help and advice with energy bills contact Citizens Advice on 01929 775500.