Behind cold doors: the chilling reality for children in poverty

Five million families are likely to turn their heating down this winter because they can’t afford to pay for it.

Dr Sam Royston is the poverty and early years policy adviser for the Children’s Society

More than three million families are likely to cut back on food so they can pay their energy bills this winter. Yet as temperatures plunge, nearly two million children living in poverty are in families that are missing out on the Warm Home Discount – a vital support to helping families keep their heating on this winter.

Backed by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu and the Daily Mirror, the Children’s Society is highlighting the harsh reality for children growing up in cold homes and is calling on the government to take urgent action to tackle this problem.

At the Children’s Society we know that fuel poverty is a reality for many of the families we work with. Every day we see parents who have to spend their days in public buildings just to keep warm, only turning the heating on for a couple of hours a day when their children come home from school. Tragically, some families struggle even to do this.

One mother we spoke to, Amanda, is sadly typical. She lives with her partner and four children in a damp, mould-ridden council flat. She told us: “We only have the heating on for about three hours at most…in the morning when the children are getting ready, after school for a bit and at bedtime”.

To keep warm, Amanda wears her coat or dressing gown on top of her clothes. She and her partner Jim frequently have to cut back on their meals or miss them altogether to make sure their children have enough to eat.

Our new report, Behind Cold Doors: The chilling reality for children in poverty, reveals the shocking scale of the problem: five million families are likely to turn their heating down this winter because they can’t afford to pay for it. And half of them are worried this will affect their children’s health. In the most severe cases the cold can be a contributing factor in children’s deaths.

Official figures* show that in 2011-12 there were 110 more deaths among children during the winter than at other points of the year.

A combination of unprecedented welfare cuts and the rising cost of living and stagnant wages mean families are having to face the agonising choice of heating their home or putting food on the table for their children. Coping with this dilemma, some families have no other option than to take out loans to make ends meet. Our survey found that 500,000 families with children were likely to take out a loan this winter to help with the cost of fuel bills.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One important measure of support available is the Warm Home Discount. Energy companies are required to provide a £135 rebate to low income, vulnerable households. While low income pensioners automatically get this support as they fall within the scheme’s core group, a broader group of claimants, including families on low incomes, have to apply to their supplier.

As our report shows, many families who need support are slipping through the net. As energy companies use different criteria to decide whether struggling families receive this support or not, many children living in low income families are missing out.

Two-thirds of children living in poverty are now in working households. Yet three out of the six Warm Home Discount schemes exclude low income working families. This risks driving many vulnerable people into debt, with some being forced to turn to high-cost money lenders.

One simple step the government can take is to make sure all children living in families in poverty automatically get the Warm Home Discount. Eligibility could be based on families receiving Child Tax Credit and earnings of less than £10,000 per year.

This would ensure an extra 3.3 million children (1.7 million low income households) would automatically get this extra support to heat their homes. Most importantly, it would help end the scandal of children being forced to grow up in cold homes.

The Children’s Society is calling on the public to contact their MP to help make sure no child has to grow up in a cold home.

To find out more about fuel poverty, see our calculator.

* According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 110 more child deaths in December 2011 to March 2012 compared to the average of August to November 2011, and April to July 2012.

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