Fuel poverty is rocketing but where are the children in UK energy policy?

Irene González Pijuan explores the impacts of energy poverty on children as part of her PhD, supervised by Professor Aimee Ambrose (Sheffield Hallam University) and Professor Lucie Middlemiss (University of Leeds).

As we all know, the UK is experiencing unprecedented levels of fuel poverty, with around 7 million households now estimated to be struggling to heat their homes to a safe and comfortable level. When we think of fuel poverty, we normally associate it with the elderly who are well known to be particularly vulnerable and impacted severely by cold homes. What is less commonly known is that children are also impacted distinctly and significantly by fuel poverty thus making them one of the most vulnerable, yet overlooked, groups.

Research reveals that households with children are some of the worst affected. Data from the End Fuel Poverty Coalition shows that at least 42% of households with babies and infants are forecast to be in fuel poverty from 1st April 2023 when the energy price protections (limiting average bills to £2,500 annually) expire; and while 22% of households will face fuel poverty during the winter of 2022/ 23, for households with children aged 0-4 years old, this number rises to 35%.

Our analysis now also reveals that, across Europe, fuel poverty is very high among children living in certain categories of households (EU-SILC 2010-2019). Overall, single parent households and those led by women are at a higher risk. Those with dependent children living in single adult households, are reporting fuel poverty rates that are often double those in the population as a whole. The same is true for children growing up in larger households with 2 adults and 3 or more dependent children

Historically fuel poverty has tended to be studied at a household level and not in terms of how it may impact different members within the household in different ways. As a result, children are largely missing from UK energy policies. A growing body of research finds that children are impacted in distinct ways and points to substantial consequences for their physical and mental health, and educational attainment (Marmot Review Team report, 2011).

Child doing homework

A National Centre for Social Research (NATCEN) study proved that respiratory problems are twice as prevalent in infants who have lived for at least 3 years in a cold home (15% versus 7%). In fact, infant respiratory health is found to be worse in households that experience difficulties coping with the cost of domestic energy requirements (Mohan, 2021).

1 in 4 teens living in fuel poverty are at risk of mental health problems compared to 1 in 20 for teenagers not living in fuel poverty (National Children’s Bureau, 2015). 10% of the adolescents in fuel poverty followed by NATCEN (2008) felt unhappy in their family compared with 2% of similar teenagers living in warmer homes. Added to this, it has been found that fuel poverty increases the likelihood of depression in parents which can have significant knock-on effects for their children’s welfare (Mohan, 2021).

Families facing energy affordability issues tend to significantly reduce their energy use and cut down on other essential expenses such as food, leisure, or clothing all of which are essential in the welfare of children (The Children’s Society, 2015). 

These findings highlight the need to recognise children as a unique vulnerable group in energy policy to ensure appropriate solutions are being implemented for them. UK energy policy needs to address children directly, to ensure that they are supported to access adequate energy. As we know, mental and physical health issues during childhood can have long term implications – they negatively impact educational attainment, social inclusion, and happiness. Policy makers need to acknowledge, target, and provide appropriate solutions for children in fuel poverty, prioritising their best interests, drawing on the growing evidence base specifically related to fuel poverty in childhood.

An example of good practice in prioritizing children within energy policy is the Child Rights and Wellbeing Impact Assessment in the Scottish Fuel Poverty Act which aims to account for the specific impacts on children and intends to ensure that policies are designed fulfill children’s specific needs. Scotland also has the Child Winter Heating Assistance scheme, a payment to help disabled children and young people and their families with increased heating costs over winter. Interventions aimed at improving energy efficiency and housing conditions for children with asthma in Wales and Ireland have also proved to be effective in enhancing children’s health.

Our recommendations for future energy policies include:

  • explicit and targeted financial support for children living in cold homes, with special attention to single-parent households and large families;
  • make sure vulnerable households with children are not disconnected if they cannot afford their bills (something achieved by the Spanish Consumer Protections Law). It is important to note here that prepayment meters are risky for children, as they are more likely to result in parents self-disconnecting (not using the energy supply available to them) and so do not guarantee energy access for children;
  • take into account realistic provisions of childcare family costs when determining income thresholds in the design of subsidies or energy retrofit interventions, acknowledging that single parent households, as well as large families, are at a higher risk.

As policy-makers start to consider new energy policies after April 2023, we encourage them to use this evidence to ensure appropriate attention to given to the distinct impacts of fuel poverty on children and create solutions with them in mind.