UNISON members out in the cold as energy costs rise

Nurses, home care assistants, school cleaners and teaching assistants are among the UNISON members struggling with rising fuel bills and turning to the union for help. The union has seen a massive 388% increase in requests for financial assistance, as the effect of the Government’s three year pay freeze bites deeper into household incomes.

More than half of applicants for a fuel grant (56.6%) had sacrificed food to keep warm, while 69% had cut back on clothing and 80% on leisure. The survey also revealed that 77.7% avoid putting the heating on, while 54.6% only heated the room they were in.

A very worrying finding was that nearly a third reported that the health of someone in the household suffered as a result. Asthma and bronchitis were the top consequences – including for those with young children – but cancer, diabetes, MS and arthritis sufferers were also affected by cold. One person revealed that their son with cerebral palsy was confined to a wheelchair and therefore unable to move around to keep warm.

Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON said:

“It is heartbreaking to read some of the stories behind these requests for help. Never in all my years in the union have I seen so many members struggling so hard just to keep warm and to put food on the table. It has been a long hard winter this year and it is disgraceful – heating or eating should not have to be a choice in the UK in 2013.

“The fact that nearly 30% of those surveyed are on prohibitively expensive pre-payment meters, speaks volumes about the dire state of their family finances. And is it any wonder when public service workers have been stuck on a three year pay freeze, while prices just keep on going up?

“It is time the Government invested in the future of the country for the benefit of all. We need investment in infrastructure, in building much needed homes, as well as putting money back into people’s pockets, to get them spending and stimulating their local economy.”

The union is also calling for concrete policies to stem the flow of people falling into the despair of fuel poverty. A nationwide programme of measures to insulate homes and provide energy efficient central heating systems would help domestic consumers and create jobs says UNISON.

Comments from UNISON members surveyed:

* “I am afraid to switch the heating on – it is really cold in the house”

* “I have to go to bed earlier than usual so heating can be put off.”

* “The heating is never used during the day even when its cold. I ensure the children wrap up and use extra layers and blankets.”

* “I have to be very careful on how much oil and electric I use and as a single parent I find that hard.”

* “Oil heating is more expensive in Fermanagh than other areas of Northern Ireland. I have to ask my son to help out who works part-time.”

* “We have to be careful when using gas and electric appliances as we pay by metercard/key for both and also have to make sure we have money for essentials ie food.”

* “I try to only put heating on when extremely cold as I am concerned I will be unable to pay the bill. Due to ill health I have had four operations in last months and I am due another next month – staying warm enables me to recoup more comfortably but I am worried about paying bills constantly.”

· 58% of people had tried switching suppliers, but 52% reported prices staying the same – while 23.4% had seen costs increase.

· 46.7% went to bed earlier to save money and 55.8% wore extra clothes in bed.

· Around one third were in debt to their fuel supplier with one third owing between £100 – £200. Nearly 5% owed £500 or more.

UNISON’s welfare fund – There for you – offers advice and support as well as financial assistance for members and their families. It receives applications from members for help with debt, housing and fuel, as well as the cost of school uniforms.

The charity used to pay for wellbeing breaks for low paid families, but since the coalition took office these have been cancelled to allow the fund to cope with the massive rise in demand for help with basics such as fuel and housing, emergency financial aid and the rising demand for help with debt.