- I originally wrote this piece and it was published in the Greater London Pensioners Association Magazine in August 2011. I have since edited it and am posting it here, because it is just as relevant today, if not more so than it was then. I wrote this in a time where we had had a Tory dominated Coalition government for just over a year. Things have since grown considerably worse for the most vulnerable in our society. This matter is both a cause and a symptom.
With the beginning of winter in sight, many of us are faced with the disturbing question; heating or eating? When I started this piece in 2011, I was racked with a combination of both worry and disgust on the issue of rapidly rising fuel costs. British Gas as one of the “Big Six” gas companies were expected to announce yet another major increase in prices within the following weeks and no doubt will again now, leaving thousands of families nationwide with a near impossible ultimatum. I looked into the history of British Gas at the time and was not at all surprised. In 1986, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced the Gas Act 1986, resulting in the privatisation of the company. A shock revelation? Far from it. Things were starting to make sense.
In what seems to have become an annual if not quarterly increase in the prices of our gas bills within the past fifteen years, British Gas has reportedly been working at a fairly substantial loss, however instead of lowering prices and becoming somewhat more competitive in this multi billion pound industry, they continue to increase fuel costs. The logic here is almost identical to that of the current economic climate. Almost all of the money in our economy (97%) is being created in the form of a debt to a bank. Under the current system, if our economy wants more money; we need to create more debt. More debt means more interest to be repaid; more interest to be repaid means less purchasing power; less purchasing power means more debt to survive and so the cycle continues. Who suffers? The ever increasing vulnerable majority.
In the February of 2008, Channel Four Dispatches revealed to the nation what some would call some shocking truths. In a late evening documentary called “Heat or Eat: A Pensioners’ Dilemma”, Channel Four exhibited the lives of elderly men and women whom live on a basic state pension and have to deal with the complexities of the government’s means-tested benefits while struggling to afford the most basic of necessities. Channel Four stated; “With energy prices soaring, its provision to make sure that they’re warm and properly cared for in winter is becoming more and more inadequate. At the same time it is impoverishing the elderly and their families, who increasingly have to pay for basic social services.” If only we knew then what was ahead of us.
In March 2011, the BBC reported that the winter fuel allowance stood at £250 for the over 60s and £400 for the over 80s, however this was to revert to a mere £200 and £300 for the two age groups in the winter of 2011-12. That payment has since been gradually decreased again to £100-£300, depending on a new long list of circumstances. According the DirectGov website that year, families in receipt of welfare benefits would also receive a ‘Cold Weather Payment’, a benefit many had never even heard of. I expect the reason for this being that it was only paid for each day of “Extreme cold weather conditions”. Since I wrote this article, that payment has been scrapped almost entirely and is now only awarded for each 7 days of “extreme weather”, meaning 7 days of heavy snow. As it stands, there are no benefits to help with the fuel costs within the homes of disadvantaged families with young children in the UK. Many families in and around London are turning to the growing number of charities such as Help A London Child, run by Capital FM, who provide good meals and school clothing for children in order for the families to manage the cost of basic living. It is predicted that more families will be using food banks than ever before this winter, after a report that claimed that over 1,000,000,000 people used them in the UK last year. This staggering number was queried by food bank workers across the country, who claimed that the reality was worryingly closer to 2,000,000,000. When I wrote this article in 2011, food banks were barely in existence.
In 2015, Nottingham City Council launched non-profit organisation Robin Hood Energy. According their website, the thing that predominantly sets the company aside from “the big six” is that it provides low cost energy to all households, which is not just restricted to Nottingham residents and there are no shareholders or director’s bonuses involved. In September 2015 The Guardian reported that the company had aimed to save the average household £237 per annum on their energy bills, however have saved households as much as £600 per year. Many delegates at this year’s Labour Party conference, myself included, were incredibly impressed by these figures were shared with us and wish to embark on building similar schemes in Labour councils across the country. With a Labour leader such as Jeremy Corbyn, who is keen to push forward plans to re-nationalise services such as the UK’s railways, this prospect is achievable.
From the day that pure ignorance won the Tories their seats in parliament in 2010 and devastatingly once again in 2015, it is widely felt that we are allowing society to revert back to a time of huge social divisions, where these bare necessities are rapidly being made something of a privilege and lone parent and disadvantaged families are again being cast as socially unacceptable both by the government and the mass media. In not fighting to change this, we ourselves are neglecting the elderly, the children and the disabled of this country. We must unite and stand up for the vital resources that thousands of families and individuals rely upon. Our children, our pensioners and our disabled citizens are more vulnerable than they have been since the early 1950’s in the UK and if we do not take a stand and fight to change the system that is failing them, failing us, who will?
By The Breadline Mum
August 2011, edited October 2016.