Over one million young families in England will be in fuel poverty by spring, according to new figures shared with The Independent.
The number of families with children under five who are living in fuel poverty will rise from 860,000 to 1,050,000 when changes announced in the autumn Budget kick in from April, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition of charities has estimated.
Gas and electricity bills are set to soar again after the chancellor Jeremy Hunt revealed that the energy price guarantee would rise on 1 April, pushing up average annual costs from £2,100 to £3,000.
The coalition, whose members include Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, warned of a health-damaging “humanitarian crisis” if a growing number of families are forced to turn off their heating.
Parents have told The Independent about the terrible choices they already face between heating or eating, while charity leaders said a growing number of children are going to school both cold and hungry.
“Every day I have parents coming in saying they haven’t been able to put the heating on for days,” said William McGranaghan, manager of the Dad’s House crisis charity. “Their kids are sitting at home in jackets, going without hot meals – it’s soul-destroying.”
The proportion of families in England with young children (under 4 years of age) who are in fuel poverty will rise from 35 per cent to 42 per cent from 1 April, the coalition said.
A household is defined as being in fuel poverty if the amount required to heat their home pushes them below the official poverty line, less than 60 per cent of the UK’s median income.
The coalition found that almost 200,000 additional families with young children will be pushed below this line from April, based on an analysis of the predicted energy price rise, targeted government support and official demographic statistics.
Simon Francis, coordinator at the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said the “suffering” many already face this winter would get worse when prices rise again in April 2023.
“The figures show that predictions of a humanitarian crisis for children stuck in cold homes are now a very real possibility, with fuel poverty causing a public health crisis,” he said.
It follows the recent study by University College London’s Institute of Health Equity – which warned that millions of children could see their development damaged by the “humanitarian crisis” of worsening fuel poverty.
Nick – a single father in west London looking after his three daughters aged 6, 10 and 13 – said he had been forced to rely on a food bank each week so he could top up his prepayment meter.
“We only have the heating on one to two hours a day so the kids have to put jumpers on when it’s cold,” he said – estimating that monthly energy costs have gone up from £200 to more than £300 since the summer.
Nick added: “Without the help of Dad’s House with food parcels, I wouldn’t be able to keep topping up the meter – it’s guzzling up whatever I put in. I’m a positive thinker, but it’s a real worry if gas prices go up again next year.”
Angi, a 46-year-old from Shropshire who has a 10-year-old son, is paying around £100 a month in energy bills. But she is also in debt to her supplier and “dreads” costs going up again in April.
“If my son is at school I’ll sit and be cold,” said the mother, out of work for medical reasons. “If my son is in, I try and get the room warm then turn it off and sit with blankets. I have a medical condition that if I get cold, I’m in pain but I have no choice.”
Angi has also stopped buying clothes for herself, has cut back on showers and has only one meal a day so her son can eat three times. “As long as my boy is fed and healthy that’s all I care about, to be honest,” she added.
The new figures shared with The Independent also reveal that the majority of tenants renting in the private sector will be in fuel poverty from spring because of increased heating costs.
Gas and electricity price rises coming in April will push another 420,000 private renters into fuel poverty – taking the total number to 2.3 million. It means more than 52 per cent of private renters will be in fuel poverty.
Shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband said: “These shocking new fuel poverty statistics are a stark reminder that the energy bills crisis has not gone away – millions of people will be wondering how they will afford £3,000 bills in the spring.
“It is shameful that this government is waiting three years to start a proper home insulation programme,” he added on a commitment made at the Budget to invest in energy-efficiency measures from 2025.
Mr Miliband said Labour’s plan to insulate would have helped families save up to £1,000 on their annual bills “by the time Rishi Sunak has even lifted a finger”.
National Energy Action (NEA) recently warned that average energy bills will increase by 40 per cent from current levels in April, when the £400-worth of energy bill discount payments given to all households end.
Mr Hunt announced new cost of living payments of £900 for those on means-tested benefits, £300 for pensioners, and £150 for those on disability benefits in 2023. But the NEA warned of “big gaps” in support – particularly among those on low incomes not on benefits.
Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of the Asthma and Lung UK charity, said respiratory infections could “thrive” in colder temperatures if a growing number of vulnerable people cannot afford enough heating next year.
She warned: “Children can be particularly at risk because their lungs are less well developed, so if they do pick up an infection then they’re more likely to get seriously ill.”
As part of a “warm this winter” campaign, anti-poverty and environmental organisations are organising a day of action about fuel poverty across the UK on Saturday 3 December – including a rally to be staged in London’s Parliament Square.
A government spokesperson said: “The government understands this is a difficult time, which is why we have acted swiftly to provide support with the energy price guarantee saving the typical household around £900 this winter.
They added: “This comes on top of the £400 being provided to households to discount their energy bills and the £1,200 being provided to the most vulnerable households. The government is reviewing how to support households from April 2023, focusing support for those most in need.”