RECENT news of soaring gas prices is likely to be a further hammer blow to the finances of low-income households.

Analysts now predict that the cost of energy for an average household will rise to more than £3,500 per year in October, three times higher than the average price at the beginning of 2022. We have even seen analysis which says that the cost of energy for an average household for January 2023 alone could be £500.

Our committee’s recent report, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, concluded that the Scottish and UK governments must consider what more can be done to alleviate the rising cost of fuel on low-income households that are already struggling against a backdrop of other prices rises caused by inflation. During our inquiry into low incomes and problem debt the UK Government announced its plans for a £400 energy bill discount, but this support has already been swallowed up by further increases to the cost of fuel.

Almost everyone we heard from during our inquiry said that energy costs were a significant concern. People shared their personal experiences of struggling to pay bills and spoke of their concerns about the challenges being faced, particularly by disabled people and people with health conditions, for whom heating is essential.

People with personal experience of low income and debt problems came to the Parliament to help with our inquiry in late spring. I will not forget their terrified reaction to the prospect of rising energy prices.

Energy costs were a problem before this year’s price rises. During our evidence sessions we heard how low-income households were likely to face higher fuel charges due to the installation of pre-payment meters. As Gordon McRae of Shelter Scotland told us, "…the harder someone's life, the harder we make it".

The challenges that households with low-income face will only be exacerbated by the rise in the energy price cap. Karen Carrick of the Improvement Service, which works with local government in Scotland, said that during the pandemic there was a rise in the number of people for whom energy debt was the primary reason for seeking advice.

Debt advisors, who were already warning us about their workloads and the toll this was having on them personally and professionally, were worried that increases to fuel prices would further increase the pressure on them and pled for more to be done.

We all know that the UK and Scottish Governments can respond to emergency situations. We saw the scale of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In our report we agreed that both governments must use their learnings from that crisis to develop a framework so that emergency funding, distributed in a fair and timely manner, can be used to help support low-income households through this crisis.

There is also a role for energy companies. We want to see what the companies are doing to address fuel poverty and we really need to see action on the disproportionate impact that increasing energy costs have on disabled people.

We agree that acting now is vital to give Scotland’s low-income household the greatest possible resilience against the coming storm and will be monitoring the situation closely.

Elena Whitham MSP is Convener of the Scottish Parliament's Social Justice and Social Security Committee

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