Fears Portsmouth families will have to 'choose between eating and heating' amid energy crisis
FEARS that families across the Portsmouth area will be forced to ‘choose between heating and eating’ this winter have been raised by charity groups and organisations as uncertainty over the energy crisis continues.
Experts have warned if energy bills increase or people are forced to change suppliers it could be the ‘final straw’ for record numbers of residents facing financial difficulties after more than a year of price hikes, furlough, job losses and benefit cuts.
It comes as government has yet to confirm whether it will fully subsidise extra costs faced by energy companies amid a gas shortage that has already seen five small suppliers go bust.
As a result The News has pledged to continue to seek answers from government about how residents will be affected by the energy crisis and lobby to ensure no family is left without heating this winter.
Chief executive officer at Citizens Advice Portsmouth and vice chair of Hive Portsmouth, Sandy Bramley, said: ‘In the coming months we are certain to see an increase in households who will have to make a choice between heating and eating, which is totally unacceptable.
‘Sadly the UK energy crisis is set to bring additional financial burdens to an already growing list. With the furlough scheme ending on September 30 and the £20 universal credit uplift stopping on October 6 the last thing our residents need is their energy prices going up, but this is what they will be dealing with.
‘We are already experiencing unprecedented demand for our debt advice services as a result of Covid, with us seeing 6,337 debt clients in the first six months of this year compared to the whole of last year's 7,714.’
She added: ‘If you are struggling to pay your energy bills, speak to your energy provider about the difficulties you are experiencing, as they may have schemes or grants that could help you.
‘If you are getting into debt, seek advice from Citizens Advice Portsmouth as soon as you realise this is the case, so we can help you as early as possible.’
According to government data taken in 2019, 9,873 or 11 per cent of all households in Portsmouth were classed as living in fuel poverty - meaning residents cannot afford their energy bills.
In Havant seven per cent of homes faced fuel poverty, while eight per cent in Gosport and five per cent in Fareham did.
Leigh Park father-of-five Darren McKenna, said his family were postponing Christmas presents this year and instead celebrating ‘springmas’ in order to avoid debt.
The 42-year-old, who is one of the organisers of the annual Big Wrap project to supply festive gifts to families in need, said: ‘We see it a lot every year where people still - rightfully so - want to celebrate Christmas despite struggling financially with winter bills and everything. They then end up in debt in January and February.
‘So I will still be having a Christmas meal with my family but we will save the presents for next year. But I don’t think many people will want to do that.’
The Big Wrap scheme saw donated presents wrapped up and given to around 100 Leigh Park families last year, despite the pandemic.
Darren said: ‘There’s been increased interest this year. We’ve never had people coming to us asking to be helped before, it’s the first time that has happened. And I think it’s a combination of all the financial pressures people are facing this winter.’
Talking about the potential energy bill increase he added: ‘As with most things it’s the added pressure of what’s going to happen next. Having it just on top of Christmas with the fear of having another lockdown and jobs lost makes you think what more can we put up with?
‘There’s a general anger towards the government for allowing prices to hike.’
Portsmouth Councillor Cal Corkery, who represents Charles Dickens ward - one of the most deprived in the city – has concerns for the poorest and most vulnerable.
He said: ‘I think after the past year and a half we have had people feeling the strain particularly when you account for things like the universal credit cut we know is coming.
‘That coupled with rising national insurance, a big hike in energy bills is going to hit the poor and vulnerable.
‘I would encourage people to contact the Switched On service who have a team of advisers who will be best placed to help.
‘In my opinion the best solution is to nationalise the energy companies rather than allowing them to profit off people.’
Steve Bonner, from the Pompey Pensioners Association, added: ‘People on low incomes, particularly single women pensioners, are going to be very badly hit by this.
‘We actually found a number of our members struggling before the price hike, this is going to exacerbate it.
‘Also older people don’t like to change and if they are going to be forced to change providers that’s going to worry them. We are hoping the government will subsidise the industry to make the minimum impact on people.’
However, a government spokesman said they were making ‘significant progress in tackling fuel poverty’ by installing over 3.3 million measures in 2.3 million homes to date, replacing 750,000 boilers.
Support with finances can be given by Citizens Advice Portsmouth on 02394006600 or through the Hive on 023 9261 6709.
Or for energy specific advice call Switched On Portsmouth on 0800 260 5907 or visit switchedonportsmouth.co.uk/energy-crisis.
WHAT PORTSMOUTH MPs SAY
Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt said: ‘Consumers need to be protected and the business secretary has confirmed that the energy price cap will stay in place.
‘Energy prices usually have some volatility, but this situation is extreme. It is impacting good businesses and that is why the government is looking to provide support.'
But Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan added: ‘The government needs to provide assurances for households already struggling to make ends meet, otherwise Portsmouth residents will feel the pinch in their pockets.
‘The priority should be protecting those that are most at risk. Ministers must take all the necessary steps to protect those who simply can’t afford to pay the expected rising energy prices.
‘Instead, the prime minister is making the squeeze on household finances worse by putting up taxes for working people and cutting universal credit.
‘I will continue to push the government to ensure Portsmouth families are protected from this crisis as we head towards winter.’