Cold comfort – vulnerable groups frozen out of initiatives to keep people warm

10 Dec 2018
Cold comfort – vulnerable groups frozen out of initiatives to keep people warm; needs not numbers must drive support measures

Many disabled people and families with children on low incomes are frozen out of schemes to support fuel poor households, say leading social scientists in a report published today by the UK Energy Research Centre [1], University of York [2] and ACE Research [3].

One hundred and twenty-five households and practitioners were interviewed for the report ‘Policy Pathways to Justice in Energy Efficiency’, and condensed policy guide ‘Justice in Energy Efficiency: a focus on fuel poor disabled people and families’, which were released today [4].

The research team found that disabled people and low-income families with children often had higher energy demands within the home compared to other households. These increased demands are often associated with keeping warm, additional laundry needs, and in some cases using energy intensive equipment such as dehumidifiers and nebulisers. These circumstances lead to both increased household energy costs and higher risks associated with disconnection and a drop in household temperature. 

Despite these needs, and the intention of policy to support households in this position, interviewees described accessing information and advice about energy and energy efficiency as a ‘minefield’, high levels of mistrust in the energy sector, and finding it difficult to know where to go and which sources to trust.   

Delivery of energy efficiency policy is variable

The report reveals the delivery of energy efficiency policy is variable and patchy, with vulnerable groups in greatest need not always eligible for support or receiving support which fails to reflect their additional needs. To improve access for vulnerable groups and to meet their needs more effectively, the report recommends there be a greater recognition of the needs of vulnerable groups, more consistent approaches across the UK and better cooperation with non-energy sectors.

Vulnerable groups, the authors argue, must be at the centre of the fuel poverty debate to ensure equal access to fuel poverty initiatives.

“Vulnerable groups are not adequately reflected in fuel poverty initiatives and these groups are suffering as a result,” said Dr Carolyn Snell, lead author and Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, University of York.

The report finds that while some initiatives have been designed with vulnerable user needs in mind, these are often missing the mark.

“While there are schemes which have the intention to support vulnerable households, information and advice about energy is a minefield for vulnerable customers to navigate and those trying to access help are often left with an overwhelming sense of frustration and feeling of powerlessness,” said Dr Snell.

Barriers to accessing fuel poverty support

The report identifies five key barriers to accessing vital fuel poverty support mechanisms and suggests ways in which access and outcomes can be improved for all.

  • Current energy efficiency programme design leads to an emphasis on meeting targets at the lowest cost – ‘the numbers game’ – and there needs to be a greater emphasis on the positive impact of intervention to the household rather than a focus on least cost.
  • Households in need are not always eligible and the mechanisms for finding households needs to improve, including greater access to quality data, data matching and data sharing to enable households to be targeted more effectively.
  • Vulnerable customers often are not aware they are eligible for support and mechanisms for finding these people need to improve, together with work to improve the trustworthiness of the schemes promoted.
  • Current programmes focus on technical improvements to buildings rather than the needs of vulnerable groups and there needs to be shift to understanding the needs of these people and how they engage with energy. 
  • The delivery of existing energy efficiency support programmes across the UK is patchy and Government should aim for consistent outcomes for households wherever they live.

The number of people experiencing fuel poverty is increasing by 210,000 to 2.55 million in 2018 [5].

“Energy efficiency and fuel poverty policy have been in continual flux over recent years, and action needs to be taken to ensure that the needs of disabled people and families on low incomes are addressed,” said ACE Research Director Kelly Greer.

“The number of people experiencing fuel poverty is on the rise and rightly is a policy focus but we urge Government to put people and not just figures at the centre of fuel poverty policy targets to make a meaningful difference”.



Notes to Editor:

[1] The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) carries out world-class, interdisciplinary research into sustainable future energy systems. Our whole systems research informs UK policy development and research strategy. UKERC is funded by The Research Councils Energy programme. See for more information.
[2] See
[3] ACE Research is an internationally respected research unit that consistently delivers ground-breaking policy research and evaluation:
[4] ‘Justice in Energy Efficiency: a focus on fuel poor disabled people and families’ is a policy briefing, authored by UKERC Dr Carolyn Snell, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Dr Mark Bevan Senior Research Fellow, of the University of York, and Dr Joanne Wade and Kelly Greer at ACE Research.  Access the full report ‘Policy Pathways to Justice in Energy Efficiency’ and associated practitioner guides from Tuesday 11th December here: 
[5] The numbers of people experiencing fuel poverty is on the rise, increasing by 210,000 to 2.55 million since the introduction of Fuel Poverty Strategy in 2015/16. Committee on Fuel Poverty. See link