Saturday, December 18, 2010

Government removes 2.8 million from fuel poverty - by redefining it

The Government is proposing to change the definition of eligibility to its Warm Front scheme - which provides help to those on benefits in leaky homes - which will slash by 65% the number of households it has to help.

The Scheme - which has been so badly run that it is now temporarily closed to new applicants while it catches up with the backlog - aims to target those who need it most, such as the ill, elderly, and those with children on receipt of certain benefits.

The new proposals for eligibility introduce a thermal efficiency test for the home under which households can access Warm Front assistance only if they have a SAP rating of 55. Recipients would also need to be eligible for Cold Weather Payments - which means not just receiving Child Tax Credit (with an income of less than £16,040), as at present, but an award of Child Tax Credit that also includes an element for a disabled, or severely disabled, child or young person, or a child under the age of five.

Currently some 4.3 million households in England could qualify for assistance from Warm Front, of which 53% are believed to be fuel poor. But applying the new criteria would reduce the number to approximately 1.5 million households.

At a stroke, many households on low incomes with children will become ineligible for support. We also know that applying a benefits criteria to fuel poverty is problematic: an English House Condition Survey found that 57% of vulnerable households in fuel poverty do not claim the relevant benefits to qualify for the scheme, so would be ineligible despite needing help.

SAP - "Standard Assessment Procedure" - is a measure of how warm a building is, and the lower the number, the harder it is to heat. 100 is the most efficient. SAPs are related to Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) - a result below 55 will yield an 'E' rated certificate.

A SAP target of 65 to be achieved “wherever practicable” has been used in Warm Front since June 2005 (in Scotland the target figure is 60), so using a figure of 55 would capture fewer homes than before – another way for the Government to dodge its responsibilities.

One reason why this change is regressive is because the fuel prices used in the SAP calculation are normally fixed for 3 to 4 years. With the volatility in prices recently seen, this could mean that a home could need help when prices rise, without being considered eligible.

Another problem is that simply by installing a condensing boiler, 47 SAP points can be added - and a box ticked - but this measure alone would do nothing to improve insulation or remove draughts.

The Warm Front Scheme was criticised last year by the National Audit Office for being inefficient, and not well targeted. It said that over 635,000 households were helped between June 2005 and March 2008, "but as there were 1.9 million vulnerable households in 2006, this rate of progress will still leave many in fuel poverty in 2010".

Warm Front has experienced extremely high demand and diminishing budgets. In 2008-9, the last year for which statistics are yet available, the figure for homes helped was 233,594, down from 268,900 the previous year. Next year will see a reduction of 63,594 homes – 27% down - on an already very low figure.

Earlier this year, therefore, the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee recommended that "the Government to move resources away from the Warm Front Scheme towards a CESP-style, street-by-street approach as advocated earlier, and for the Warm Front Scheme to move towards providing an emergency service for the most vulnerable people in fuel poverty with urgent heating needs."

This proposed change is part of the Government's response to this recommendation, as is the new Warm Home Discount, under which, from April next year, energy companies will be required to give a discount on energy bills to more of their most vulnerable customers.

But these proposed new criteria have more to do with reducing Government spending than providing proper help to those who need it most.

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