Chapter 7 – Advice and Support
As described in previous chapters, we fund HES to provide impartial advice and support to fuel poor households covering all four drivers of fuel poverty. However, we need to continue our efforts to ensure those in fuel poverty are aware of the support available and able to access it easily.
Who do households in fuel poverty contact for advice and support?
Our Lived Experience research found awareness of sources of advice and support on home heating was low amongst fuel poor households, including of HES, the Energy Saving Trust, Energy Action Scotland and local energy advice centres. Awareness of Citizens' Advice Scotland was higher, although participants did not typically associate it with advice on heating or energy costs. This low level of awareness was reflected in the low number of households who had used these services. This echoed the findings of the Evidence Review which showed that households that have the greatest need for support are often those who are not accessing it.
Rather than using advice services, households tended to access the information they needed online, or via word of mouth. Tenants, whether in the private or social sector, were more likely than owner occupiers to say that they would look for information online. For those who did not use the internet, support networks took on even greater importance. There were similar findings in the Evidence Review which highlighted how friends and neighbours can make difficult living conditions feel more tolerable.
The Evidence Review also highlighted that while support networks were an important source of information, there are times when even support networks are unable to provide the help required – because they don't have the technical knowledge necessary or because the householder does not want to talk about the issue with others. In these situations, it could take extraordinary hardship before a householder sought professional help, with long periods during which they did not have the support to which they were entitled.
What advice and support do fuel poor households need?
Our Lived Experience Research highlighted that households found it difficult to think of the kind of advice that would help them the most unprompted, as their starting point was one of low awareness about what support was available or a perception that they did not need any help or advice. The few suggestions that were made related to heating systems, specifically how best to use electric storage heaters efficiently and information on how to budget effectively.
It was also highlighted by fuel poor households in our Lived Experience Research that measures such as sending letters to remind people when to apply for the WHD would help ensure they could claim the support they were entitled to.
Our Evidence Review highlighted that there can be difficulties for fuel poor households with accessing and making sense of energy-related information. Improving energy literacy through building a greater understanding of bills and heating systems with the support of advisors, in some instances, had a dramatic positive impact on the participants' confidence and being able to cope with future problems.
The Evidence Review also highlighted the links between fuel poverty and energy debt and noted the various reasons why energy debt occurs. Further to this, it noted that in rural communities supplier mistakes and inaccurate billing were found to be a considerable part of energy advice service workloads.
Furthermore, our Evidence Review suggests that some households, especially those in vulnerable circumstances, prefer face-to-face advice.
Our Evidence Review also noted specific advice and support needs for refugees in relation to energy bills. It highlighted that asylum seekers receive lower levels of benefits than the general population and once they have leave to remain, they have only 28 days to vacate UK Border Agency accommodation and access mainstream benefits and services. This meant there was a short time between having utility bills covered by the UK Border Agency support package to having responsibility for utility bills in their new accommodation.
What barriers prevent households in fuel poverty from accessing advice and support?
Our Lived Experience Research highlighted three main reasons why participants had not sought advice and support with their heating.
Firstly, also noted in the Evidence Review, participants did not necessarily consider themselves in need of support and advice. Some showed a tendency to downplay and normalise the impacts of fuel poverty, meaning they did not perceive themselves as needing help. There was a perception that their situations were normal or acceptable, or that they were in a better position than others. Some also felt they would not qualify for financial support because of their income level or the fact that they were not in receipt of benefits.
Secondly, there were low levels of awareness of what support and advice was available or how to access it. Households were open to seeking advice on their heating but were concerned about which organisations they could trust. Our Evidence Review also found that awareness of support services was low, particularly amongst those who were having the greatest difficulty in affording their bills.
Thirdly, there was a degree of scepticism about whether support and advice would have any significant impact on them unless the cost of fuel was reduced or they received financial support towards paying for their heating.
Our Lived Experience Research also noted that communication issues can be a barrier.
The Health Impact Assessment carried out on this Strategy also highlighted a number of reasons why individuals in fuel poverty might not seek the support that is available to them:
- difficulties using digital technology,
- the stigma of friends or family knowing they are unable to heat their homes,
- in smaller communities, not wanting neighbours to know,
- language and/or cultural barriers.
Households that we spoke to as part of our Lived Experience Research told us that existing support organisations could be made more visible to help raise awareness of their potential benefits, for example by advertising on television or online. It was also suggested that any communications from HES or Energy Saving Trust should emphasise their relationship with the Scottish Government, making clear that they are impartial and independent of energy companies, which would help gain people's trust.
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