CITIZENS Advice experts are warning that more people than ever could find themselves in arrears with their energy bills as Dorset Community Foundation launches its annual Surviving Winter appeal.
The appeal, run in partnership with Citizens Advice in Dorset, distributes £200 grants to pensioners and vulnerable people aged 50 and over living in fuel poverty who often can only afford to heat one room for a few hours a day and routinely skip meals to save money for their fuel bills.
Citizens Advice project manager Ros Dignan, who has been involved with the appeal since it first launched in 2010, said although energy prices have fallen slightly since last year, they are still significantly higher than two years ago and the government’s Energy Bills Support Scheme, which gave households £400 off their bills, ended in March.
“Things have gone up hugely and although the energy prices are coming down, you’ve still got the standing charge and that can make a difference. It’s nearly £300 per year for someone who’s got gas and electric, so before you even start to use any fuel you’ve got your standing charge and I think that’s made a big difference.
“We’ve seen newer people coming in and seeking help that we probably wouldn’t have seen before because they would have been managing okay. And certainly more older people starting to contact us and say ‘Actually, you know, I managed to get through last year. It was a struggle, but I’m now in debt’.”
She fears more people will find themselves in arrears this winter. She said:
“We’re finding that people are actually starting off on a back foot because they’re in arrears. I think this year the build-up of that debt is going to be more noticeable, which is terrible because you think it’s been pretty grim for the last couple of years for people.”
Dorset Community Foundation chief executive Grant Robson said the appeal, which last year raised more than £100,000 and helped 506 people, is just as badly needed. He said:
“We’ve seen prices continue to rise and for older or vulnerable people who watch every penny the dread of a large energy bill frightens them into skipping meals or enduring cold homes.”
Mrs Dignan said tales of people choosing between heating and eating are so commonplace it is easy to become immune to the shock of it. She said:
“But it is reality though. We have people contact us who haven’t got any money for their gas or their electric or are choosing to have their electric on and not have their gas on because they can’t risk their fridge or freezer going off, they don’t want to lose all their food or their medications.”
She said the grant helps people keep their homes warm while, with the support of the Citizens Advice energy advisors, they make a plan to manage their bills, get energy-saving advice and learn about other benefits they may be entitled to.
“You see the relief in their faces. It’s that breathing space where they’ve got that time to think ‘right okay, that is going to help me get by’.”
Mr Robson said:
“In previous years we have asked people who feel they don’t need their government Winter Fuel Allowance to ‘recycle’ it so we can give it to someone in need.
“Although fewer people might feel they are in that position because of the economic situation, we hope they will still be generous and help us because cold homes and poor diets can be killers. Over the last five years in Dorset, an average of 590 people have died from cold-related illness over the winter.
“We will be relying on the wonderful donors who have given us such fantastic support over the last 13 years to do so again.”
Donate to Surviving Winter at: dorsetcommunityfoundation.enthuse.com/donate, at dorsetcommunityfoundation.org or by sending a cheque made payable to – Dorset Community Foundation to Surviving Winter appeal, Dorset Community Foundation, The Spire, High Street, Poole, BH15 1DF.
Find out more about applying for help from the appeal by calling Citizens Advice on 01929 775500.