Fuel poverty: Experts warn of ‘humanitarian crisis’ for children stuck in cold homes

A new report has predicted a 'significant humanitarian crisis' for children living in households with little or no heating - Emily Morgan reports

A “significant humanitarian crisis with millions of children’s development blighted” is on the way if the government does not act to prevent more than half of UK households plunging into fuel poverty, experts have warned.

High fuel costs and rising poverty are damaging health and this “profound impact” will worsen over the coming winter, widening inequality, according to a report by the UCL Institute of Health Equity (IHE).

The review, Fuel Poverty, Cold Homes And Health Inequalities, is led by IHE director Professor Michael Marmot, who warned that growing up in cold homes will have “dangerous consequences” for many children now and into adulthood.

It is feared that thousands of extra deaths could occur and the health and development of up to 10 million children could be affected directly or indirectly.

Cold homes adversely affect children’s development, and cause and worsen respiratory conditions and mental health problems.

Sharon Fleming is scared that by the time winter hits she could be 'starving'. Credit: ITV News.

Sharon Fleming knows better than most what poor housing can do for a child's health, believing it triggered her son's severe asthma and fears for the coming months.

She said: "By the time the winter comes in, am I just going to be starving altogether.

"I have that much to pay out to try and fix this house as well. I have to heat it, to constantly keep my son's health up."

Mother of two Laura Stubbins relies on a local foodbank to ensure her children don't go hungry - and as resources are stretched thin at the centre, even her children are starting to worry.

She said: "My fuel has gone up 60%, I'm just really scared for them. I have seen my son cry when I explain to him how much things cost because he got really anxious about it all.

"Kids are suffering with anxiety now."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know

There could also be indirect effects such as child abuse as families face “intolerably stressful” challenges in keeping their children fed and warm.

According to an estimate from the University of York in early August, 55% of households (around 15 million homes) will be in fuel poverty by January without government intervention.

Estimates suggest around one in 10 excess winter deaths in England are directly attributable to fuel poverty, and more than a fifth (21.5%) attributable to cold homes, the IHE report says.

Last winter in England there were an estimated 63,000 excess deaths, including deaths from coronavirus, with around 6,000 estimated to be as a result of fuel poverty.

The IHE said it fears numbers this winter will be “much higher”. Councils have signalled using churches, community centres and libraries as so-called "warm banks" for people unable to afford to heat their homes this winter.

The scale of the crisis means that help aimed solely at the poorest “will not be enough”, although poorer households should receive proportionally more help, the IHE said.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Prof Marmot said it is his “fervent hope” that the government will ignore “nonsense” around market rules of supply and demand and tax cuts, and decisively intervene to ensure that more people are spared from fuel poverty.

Definitions of fuel poverty vary across the four UK nations, but are based on household income, the affordability of energy and the energy efficiency of a home.

Recent estimates suggest that 13.2% of English, 12% of Welsh, 18% of Northern Irish and 25% of Scottish households experience fuel poverty.

Fuel poverty has been rising since 2020, in part because of the soaring cost of energy, with Prof Marmot calling the way the energy market works “crazy”, and companies’ profits “an absolute travesty”.

He said one of the reasons it takes so much energy to heat a home is because “we’ve got such substandard housing”, calling the government’s decision to stop improving insulation “remarkable”.

He said: “If the health of our population is under threat, it means we’re doing something terribly wrong as a society.

“And what we’ve tried to lay out is that what we’re doing wrong isn’t just the result of the war in Ukraine – we didn’t do that wrong, that’s an external event that we couldn’t affect.

Experts say improving insulation is key to lowering Britons’ energy bills Credit: PA

Children living in cold homes are less likely to be able to do their homework, meaning they could fall behind at school and be more likely to take up low-paid unstable work as adults.

Cold homes adversely affect development, can cause and worsen respiratory conditions, cardiovascular diseases, poor mental health, dementia and hypothermia.

And constant worry about making ends meet results in increased stress, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system.

Asthma + Lung UK said it fears thousands of children and adults with lung conditions “will be priced out of breathing this winter”.

A spokesman for the government said it is aware people are “incredibly worried” about energy prices and is delivering £37 billion to help them pay bills.

He added: “As the public would rightly expect, we are working closely with the NHS to ensure we are ready for extra pressures this winter, including providing an extra £79 million last year to significantly expand our mental health services, enabling more children and young people to get help.”