/ Home & Energy

Heating or eating – you shouldn’t have to choose

Food as bulbs

In a week when Scottish Power announced 19% price rises comes a report that says the poorest pensioners cut down on food spending to afford heating costs. Have you had to give up on eating to heat your house?

At Which? we’re always looking for the most timely opportunities to tell people about our research. So we reckon the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) must have been pretty pleased when Scottish Power decided to announce a massive hike in the price of energy the day before the IFS published a damning report on the effects of fuel poverty on pensioners.

Included in the respected think tank’s study was the literally chilling figure that, during cold spells, the poorest pensioners cut their food spending by 7% in order to heat their homes.

I’ve heard anecdotes about this ‘heat or eat’ dilemma before, but this is the first time I’ve seen hard statistical evidence of the problem. It should send a clear message to Ofgem and the government about the way the energy market works in this country.

Energy market fails consumers

At this very moment Ofgem happens to be ploughing its way through the responses to its latest investigation into why the energy market is failing consumers.

One of the regulator’s big findings was that up to 60% of people have never switched their supplier – and that vulnerable consumers, like the poorest pensioners, are more likely to be in this group of non-switchers than the average person.

An equally important finding was that switching your supplier for the first time could save you up to £250 a year – easily enough to mean never having to face the awful choice of keeping warm or going hungry.

Choosing the cheapest energy tariff

So why do those who stand to gain the most from switching their supplier not bother? Well, Ofgem reckons that many are put off by just how complex choosing an energy tariff can be – seven in ten people say they find this confusing. At the last count there were over 300 available – an increase of 70% in the last three years.

And it’s not just the number, there’s also a baffling array of ‘components’ – standing charges, tiers of different price rates, discounts, cashback offers, exit fees, and so on – to navigate. Price comparison sites – like Which? Switch – are really the only way to work out which is the cheapest, but only one in five of us use these to search the market.

Oh, and you need to have internet access too – something that would hardly be high on my list of priorities if I had to regularly choose between the boiler and the food cupboard.

In our response to Ofgem’s investigation we’ve told the regulator it needs to make sure tariffs are easy for people to understand and compare at a glance. This means doing away with tiered pricing and complicated discount structures. Only then will pensioners not have to choose between ‘heat and eat’.

Comments
Member

Basically I had to give up Heating to Eat – I can get by using blankets – extra sweaters – spending the day in bed – but I cannot live without food – On £102 a week it is one or the other. I chose food.

Member
pickle says:
11 June 2011

All things in moderation…..Eat sufficiently but not to excess; Heat – well, you don’t need a lot of heat if you wear sufficient warm clothing. Some excercise helps too…
It pains me to see some people out with skimpy clothing in cold weather. Wool is the best insulator – nylon and cotton are nowhere as warm.

Member

Sadly – the amount I can afford to spend on food after all other expenses are paid is around £15 a week – which I think is moderate – in fact I think it is diabolical. If the “big T” had not removed the link between state pension and average wages – My state pension would be around £140 not £102 – the extra £38 would triple the amount I could spend on food or if I saved hard – even on a holiday.

Hate to point out that wool is very expensive to buy – A sweater around £30 – polyester around £10 – Polyester wears well – cleans well and dries fast. Wool doesn’t in comparison. Three polyester sweaters are better than one wool sweater.

Member

It’s a disgrace that any pensioner should have to make this choice. They’ve paid tax and NI all their lives only to be denied basic living requirements in old age.
They certanly should not have to dress like eskimos in order to be able to afford a meal.
Removing “stealth green taxes” (generate the money through normal taxation) and VAT would help, although I expect greedy energy suppliers would soon make up the difference.

Member

“””””It’s a disgrace that any pensioner should have to make this choice. They’ve paid tax and NI all their lives only to be denied basic living requirements in old age.
They certanly should not have to dress like eskimos in order to be able to afford a meal””””

Chris, well said.

Member
StuartFelters says:
12 June 2011

In this day and age It should be a basic right for people to be able to afford to eat and keep warm. Since the introduction of privatisation of the utility companies, these basic rights have gradually been taken away from less well off people due to the want for more profit to keep shareholders happy. Re-nationalise the utililities and get the prices we all have to pay back to reasonable amounts.

Member

“””””””””””””In this day and age It should be a basic right for people to be able to afford to eat and keep warm. Since the introduction of privatisation of the utility companies, these basic rights have gradually been taken away from less well off people due to the want for more profit to keep shareholders happy. Re-nationalise the utililities and get the prices we all have to pay back to reasonable amounts.””””””””””””

Absolutely bang on StuartFelters

Member

Don’t pensioners receive heating allowance? And bus passes?

I think I would prefer more clarity on what/how much that is before making an opinion on the matter

Member

Yes we receive £250 Winter heating allowance – but the state pension is below the poverty line – If I add this to my state pension I get £102 plus £5 or £107 a week – this then allows me to spend £20 a week for food. after all other expenses except heating (which I cannot afford) – not enough. Can you eat well on £20 a week?

As I can’t afford to go any distance for any form of shopping (I can only afford to buy food) or most visits except the odd free ones – a bus pass is totally useless to me. After all I don’t work.

This year the increase from 97 to 102 or around 4.5% is exactly the rise in CPI so I’m no better off with the rise – In fact I am worse off as real food prices have risen – so the value of my pension that I paid for – for 45 years is decreased further.

Plus If the link with state pension and averag