Fuel poverty will hit millions if 'affordability ceiling' is breached

A national charity hopes that social media will help it turn the spotlight on families forced to choose whether to heat or eat
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The Independent Online

soaring energy costs have left a quarter of households struggling to pay their bills. The average cost of gas and electricity is now £1,293 a year and getting closer to a £1,500 a year affordability ceiling.

Research from uSwitch suggests that if that level is reached, three-quarters of households will start to ration energy, three-fifths will go without adequate heating and more than a third of homes will be forced to turn their heating off entirely.

There are now no energy deals costing less than £1,000. The last - a dual fuel £990 deal - was pulled by Scottish Power earlier this week. The cheapest deal, reckons Energyhelpline.com, is now EDF's Energy Discount Plan v5, which costs £1,024 a year.

If bills reach £1,500, 26 per cent of people say they would be forced to borrow to be able to afford to pay energy costs. While that sounds like a situation you'd expect to find in a third world country, the notion of fuel poverty - when energy costs account for a tenth of more of your income - is fast becoming a reality for millions.

"We are now just £207 or 14 per cent away from hitting an affordability ceiling after which consumers will start rationing their usage as though they are living in the third world," warns Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch.

Richard Lloyd, executive director at Which?, says: "The overwhelming majority of people tell us the price of gas and electricity is their biggest financial worry. The rising cost of living has already forced almost half of us to cut back on essentials, and this was before some of the recent energy price hikes had even taken effect."

The latest figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change estimate that 5.5m UK households are already in fuel poverty. By comparison, uSwitch research puts the figure at 6.3m households, or 24 per cent of the population.

"People should not be in a position where they are forced to choose between whether they heat or eat, especially while fuel companies are generating considerable profits," says Alison Taylor, director of Turn2us, a charity which helps hard-up people find benefits and grants they may be entitled to.

This month the charity aims to highlight the issue of fuel poverty through a online social media campaign that encourages people to tweet the amount they pay for gas and electricity as a percentage of their income.

It wants people to reveal their personal 'fuel rate' and challenge the Government and the energy companies to take action to make fuel more affordable – especially for vulnerable people and those on low incomes.

"We want to give people a voice and ensure they are aware of the support available to them in the form of welfare benefits and grants," says Taylor. "There are millions of people out there anxiously holding their breath in fear of the arrival of their heating and cooking bills. Help needs to be given to help them cut their bills."

Turn2us, which is part of the national debt charity Elizabeth Finn Care, plans to build up an interactive map of how much people are paying for energy across the UK and what percentage it is of their income. It wants people to submit their rate and the area they live using Twitter, SMS text message or by completing a form online. Rates will automatically be plotted on a Google Map to give a visual picture of how much people up and down the country are paying.

They also want people to use Twitter to let their fuel companies know about their personal struggle and to write to their MPs to ask for action to be taken. To get involved go to the charity's Facebook page – it's at www.facebook.com/turn2us – or follow the charity on Twitter (@turn2us_org).

Turn2us is also encouraging people to check their eligibility for financial support, such as cold weather payments, winter fuel payments and energy efficiency grants. Anyone can find out what they may be entitled to by using the Benefits Checker or Grants Search at www.turn2us.org.uk.

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