Weaknesses in the benefits system cause fuel poverty!

Last week we spent a day with St. Ann’s Advice Centre’s Tackling Fuel Debt Project, funded by The Ebico Trust. The Ebico Trust is funding the home visits part of the project so the team can provide fuel debt advice to those who may not be able to come to the centre. During our day we initially had a project debrief with Debbie, the manager, and her team on the challenges they face. We then visited two clients, Paula and Agata, who had benefited from the Project.

From Debbie’s experience it was very clear that the recent benefit system reforms have introduced new challenges for benefit claimants. She has seen claimants being sanctioned and their benefits cut for relatively minor reasons, leaving them with very little money to live on. Likewise, when a claimants’ circumstances change, very often the process by which the person’s benefits are adjusted does not work properly and benefits are either withdrawn inappropriately, or overpayments are made which subsequently are reclaimed by cutting payments. Eligibility assessments for benefits can take several weeks, leaving claimants with no, or very little, money to live on during that period.

This was the case with Paula, who lives with her young daughter and who we first visited. Paula’s circumstances changed on several occasions as she was in and out of hospital several times. Every time her circumstances changed she would lose eligibility for certain benefits but, at the same time, she would qualify for a different ones. The problem that she faced each time was that, as soon as she lost eligibility for one benefit, the payments were
stopped immediately. Yet it would take weeks to go through the eligibility assessment for the ones she had become entitled to. As her situation had changed on several occasions this had become a vicious cycle. The situation left Paula short of cash, and she slowly ended up in council tax arrears, fuel and other debts. Eventually, Paula and her young daughter were left to live for several months on a budget of £14.50 per week.

After she realised that she is not coping on her own anymore Paula contacted St. Ann’s Advice Centre. The Centre then referred her to Tracey from Bestwood Advice Centre, joint partners in the Fuel Debt Project. Tracey helped Paula to sort out her benefits and helped her to arrange manageable repayments by automatic debt repayment. Paula is now finally starting to get back on track. She has paid-off her fuel debt and is catching up with most of her other debts. “It is nice to get to a cashpoint and see that there is some money there” Paula said.

After Paula, we visited Agata, who lives with her 6 year old daughter and her grandmother. She works night shifts at a local factory. She is separated from her partner who is not paying any child maintenance and is not helping her financially in any way. Although she applied 8 months ago for child benefits, the information that HMRC holds on her was incorrect and, as a result, her application was refused.

Prior to getting into a fuel debt, Agata lived in shared accommodation where she was responsible for the energy bills. Her landlord did not allow her to change energy supplier or meter. The people she shared the property with did not pay their share for the bills and, eventually, she was left with £700 in fuel debt. Although she managed to move into a different property with her daughter and grandmother, the debt remained with her. It got to the point where she could not cope financially anymore and that’s when she got in touch with St. Ann’s Advice Centre.

David, from the Centre, helped Agata apply for a grant to pay her fuel debt off, which has now been approved. On the day of our visit, the cheque to cover Agata’s fuel debt arrived and Hugh Lee, from the Ebico Trust, was delighted to hand the cheque over to her. Agata is now paying £20 per week for her energy and is very happy that she does not have to worry about her fuel debt anymore. She will now, finally and for the first time, be able to compare energy tariffs and switch to the cheapest deal for her.

David also helped Agata to present her case to the HMRC to receive Child Benefit for her daughter. They are still waiting for the decision.

From our visit to St Ann’s Advice Centre it was very clear that the current benefits system is not working as well as it should, and that there is a lot of confusion around it. Similarly, the processes also seem very slow, forcing people into fuel poverty. These issues keep Debbie and her team very busy and often frustrated. However, with the help of The Ebico Trust and various other trusts and charities, St Ann’s Advice Centre is able to help those in most need.

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