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This is a text-only version of an article first published on Friday, 19 December 2014. Information shown on this page may no longer be current.

by Alison WebsterThe first frosts have bitten - with beautiful sunrises to match. Autumn and winter can be glorious, but for those in fuel poverty, it signals the beginning of months of anxiety, ill-health and misery. Fuel poverty is not an abstract issue.

It's a matter of life and death.

In the freezing weather of 2012, 31,000 people in the UK died unnecessarily - 10,000 of those deaths were due to cold homes.

Living in a cold home affects children's educational attainment, emotional wellbeing, and resilience.

In adults, it is associated with elevated levels of heart attacks and strokes; it exacerbates colds and flu, rheumatism and arthritis, and severely undercuts mental health. Social isolation is increased (inviting friends back to your cold home is difficult), and elderly people are particularly vulnerable.

It's not a small problem either: almost four million households in the UK are officially classed as being in fuel poverty.

For increasing numbers the choice this winter will be to 'heat or eat'.

The situation is particularly acute for the 7. 6 million energy customers (16 per cent of the total) that have a prepayment meter ('PPM'), for which the price per unit outstrips that enjoyed by wealthier customers. In November we held our fourth diocesan Justice Forum to share ideas about how to respond to fuel poverty.

Entitled 'Heat or Eat' we heard from the national campaigning body Church Action on Poverty; from local authority representatives, and from other advisory organisations such as Citizens Advice and Oxford's Consumer Empowerment Partnership. We explored: who is affected by fuel poverty in our own communities? What more should Government and the energy companies be doing to tackle it? What practical support is available to people to help reduce their bills, or to help with energy efficiency measures? We also heard stories of imaginative local initiatives.

For instance, the tiny village church in Oxfordshire that distributes Winter Warmth parcels to vulnerable local people at Christmas, including (amongst other thoughtfully produced handmade items) a £40 cash component; Oxfordshire Rural Community Council's bulk fuel-buying scheme that address high fuel prices in rural areas, whilst also keeping a friendly eye out for those who are vulnerable; the not-for-profit energy company, Ebico, that works to combat fuel poverty through its imaginative pricing structure.

And we heard about the 'Fair pay for pre pay' campaign (www. citizensadvice. org. uk/index/campaigns/current_campaigns/fairprepay. htm). In short, we inspired one another to make our churches warm places and spaces of welcome this winter, in our currently frigid and punishing context of austerity. Alison Webster is the Social Responsibility Adviser for the Diocese of Oxford.

Page last updated: Friday 19th December 2014 12:00 AM
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