NEW research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has found that almost 7 million low-income UK households have gone without household essentials since the start of this year.

Some 2.3m families were going without enough food and were unable to keep their homes warm. JRF said: “The Chancellor’s support package, although welcome to tackle rising energy costs, doesn’t even touch the sides when it comes to the financial problems of low-income families highlighted in this extensive report.”

More households were using credit – including high interest lending – to pay for essentials like heating, food, toiletries and showers. The position is set to worsen as Ofgem announces October’s energy price cap rise next month. 

Analysts Cornwall Insight predict a 65% increase with average household fuel bills rising from £1971 to £3244 in October. The price cap was just more than £1000 in the summer of 2020.

It’s important to remember these percentage hikes are cumulative and exponential – rises on rises. 

While helpful, the UK Government’s £400 energy grant to most households from October is about to be rendered of minor consequence in the grand scheme of things. If the profits of oil and gas companies are about to ratchet up again then surely we need another windfall tax and uprating of the energy grant to around £1000?

Traditionally, North Sea oil and gas fields were owned and operated by companies like BP, Shell and Exxon, but over the last few years many North Sea oil assets have been sold by the majors to global private equity owned groups. 

Supernormal profits are being extracted from UK consumers and there is a compelling case to increase tax on oil and gas companies and redirect that money back to consumers.

While the UK Government has the power to alleviate the cost-of-living emergency for gas and electricity bills, the Scottish Government can help too. The Scottish Parliament’s Social Justice and Social Security (SJSS) committee recently published its new report: “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: Low Income and the Debt Trap.”

It’s a thoughtful and pragmatic report based on the lived experience of those who’ve experienced unmanageable debt and advice agencies and groups who’ve supported them.

In the context of fuel poverty, the SJSS committee had previously asked the Scottish Government to make use of its devolved powers to the full extent to make sure that social security benefits are used for maximum impact on tackling fuel poverty, particularly for disabled children and adults who face higher costs to meet their needs.

In its new report the committee said: “We reiterate this ask and urge the Scottish and UK governments to continue to consider what more could be done to alleviate the burden of rising inflation, increased energy prices and the cost of living on low-income households and to target support at those most in need.”

The SJSS committee also made a wide number of practical suggestions that we could implement in Scotland right now – to take two examples, school meals and council tax debt.

The charity Aberlour estimates there are 25,000 primary school children whose households have a £1m debt for school meals.

The committee recommends this is written off so pupils can move into secondary school without debt. 

There is a hidden hunger problem in secondary schools because they operate a cashless payment system for meals, with top ups being made by a parent or carer. Those with no money can’t access a lunch. 

The committee quoted a young person who said: “I know a good few people who don’t actually get lunch because they feel like they’re using the money their parents could be using for something better. They feel responsible, so they don’t buy lunch so they can give the money back to their parents.” Surely this is an issue we need to address?

Council tax is by far the most common type of debt for those on low incomes, followed by gas and electricity arrears. Most approaches to debt recovery by local authorities have the opposite effect of supporting those on low incomes and frequently compound problems on a scale rarely encountered with most private sector creditors. 

The use of summary warrant procedure and charge for payments is counterproductive when trying to help those on the lowest incomes deal with their council tax and enter into an affordable arrangement. 

The 10% statutory addition plus sheriff officers’ fees can easily add months to a carefully calculated payment arrangement, prolonging the indebtedness.

The committee recommends local authorities, Cosla and the Scottish Government work together with the free advice sector to develop national standards for council tax collection. 

It suggests placing standards on a legislative footing to make them binding and enforceable.

We could easily implement this and help thousands of people.