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UK: Information overload drowns out fuel help message

A survey on fuel poverty by Save the Children campaigners in Sandwell, west Midlands, has shown how difficult it is for poor households battling with high fuel bills to access available help and advice from the government and energy providers.

The survey found that face-to-face interaction was the most effective and preferred way of reaching poorer households with health-related messages, but that information bombardment through leaflets, internet, billboards, text messages, etc, was stopping important information from getting through.

Extreme household poverty in the UK

According to Save the Children’s latest report, there are a shocking 3.5 million children living in poverty in Britain today. Growing up in poverty can dramatically affect a child’s life chances, as families are forced to miss out on essentials like food or take on crippling debts, just to meet everyday living costs.

The borough of Sandwell in the West Midlands has one of the highest levels of deprivation among local authorities in England (twelfth out of 326, Index of Multiple Deprivation 2010).

Fuel poverty is huge problem here, with statistics from the Rural Service Network showing that 29% of Sandwell homes are affected.

Tackling poverty at local level

I spoke about fuel poverty with Sandwell MP Tom Watson during the Tea Time for Change conference in Westminster.

We had planned to lobby the government and fuel providers for special low energy tariffs for people in poverty, with Tom Watson MP agreeing to work with local groups to pursue a pilot scheme, initially targeting 10 households. He also agreed to raise the issue with both Energy Secretary and Shadow Energy Secretary.

However this initial idea was shelved when we realised that government help was already available for those genuinely battling with fuel bills. But who knew?

We decided to carry out a survey with poor households to hear their experiences, determine the full extent of the problem and find out how many were aware of the help available.

Sandwell fuel poverty survey

Our survey showed that more than half of households in Sandwell were battling with fuel bills, that 56% turned off their heating to avoid high charges, and that a staggering 98% did not know about the help available to them.

The survey also revealed an element of ‘information fatigue’. Local people had become so overburdened and overwhelmed with information from all sources – internet, texts, leaflets etc – that they had come to treat all of it with caution or even total disregard.

Every little positive step helps

We discussed these survey results during a recent Community Development Sandwell (CDS) meeting. The event brought together more than fifty community development practitioners from the area to focus on issues including fuel poverty in the UK, with a key presentation by Save the Children Poverty Adviser, Graham Whitham.

At the end of the event, participants agreed that even though household poverty levels are increasing as a result of current cuts, and families are likely to be even worse off following the introduction of the Universal Credit System in 2013, every little positive step helps.

Local Save the Children campaigners are now working with other partners to link families affected by fuel poverty to available help. We hope it will make a big difference.

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