Mistletoe and Wine!

I unashamedly leave a copy of Fuel Oil News on the kitchen table in the hope that someone in the family is interested enough to read about what I do. I am hoping that this month they ask why I am wearing an Elf’s hat. If for no other reason than observation is an important characteristic!

Mistletoe and wine

The answer is, of course, obvious: the brilliant people at Fuel Oil News got the real Santa to pose for the front cover and I am merely one of Santa’s helpers.

In that vein, I hope that UKIFDA has been helpful this year. I know the whole team has worked extremely hard, and I believe we have achieved quite a lot.

A few weeks before last Christmas, I was in Cornwall with the Mitchell & Webber team, talking to George Eustice, their local MP, alongside residents of Kehelland. It was a Christmas wish that, at some point, we would get a piece of legislation outlining a proposed Renewable Liquid Heating Fuel Obligation – see, Santa is real.

We have met some interesting characters across the political divide this year, including Liz Truss, Jacob Rees Mogg, Angus MacNeil, Ben Lake, Ian Paisley and Lord Berkeley, and it was an honour to do so alongside many local fuel distributors in their homes and depots. I have been humbled by the industry’s support of the Future Fuels campaign.

Special mention must be given to our partners, OFTEC, who have been with us all the way.

I do, however, wish to use this month’s column to address the difficult and complex issue that is fuel poverty. It’s a topic that is not only hard to talk about but also challenging to solve.

There are several aspects to this difficulty.

Firstly, many who are in poverty feel helpless and, often, have a lack of hope and, as a result, disengage from the very community that may be able to help. And, of course, the biggest issue of all is the loss of the ability to ask for help. On the other hand, others worry about getting involved, making a fool of themselves or even making things worse.

It is not helped that governments have different definitions of and approaches towards fuel poverty, with statistics that are not granular enough to really identify where the problems are.

The statistics (see separate section) show that the households in the homes and areas where we serve as an industry are more likely to be either in fuel poverty or have a very high poverty gap (the amount of money required for that household not to be in fuel poverty) than other parts of the country.

Although Cliff Richard crooned “It’s a time for giving”, I understand that money is only part of the problem.

At our regional meeting in Scotland in October, we invited speakers from the Fuel Bank Foundation and Advice Direct Scotland. Both organisations have significant funds from the Scottish Government to help those in rural communities classified as in fuel poverty.

What came out of those discussions was a surprise. The main challenge is not the availability of funds to support payments but rather the identification of and outreach to those in need and devising new ways to connect with them.

The bottom line is that we must explore new methods to increase awareness about the help that is available and, in doing so, find different approaches to communicating with people to help them seek the aid or resources that can benefit them.

One of the outcomes of fuel poverty is self-disconnection or self-rationing where, for periods of time, customers decide not to use their heating to either preserve money for other things or to eke out their remaining supplies. This has implications for both their health and the health of their homes.

What can we do as an industry?

Well, I have to be honest; until very recently, I thought this was only about money, but I was wrong. The solution is more complex. As I have said before, under different circumstances, we know who our customers are and we know where they live. Also, we must acknowledge we don’t have the skills to resolve it.

Therefore, my best advice and the general thrust of the presentations in Scotland is to get in touch with the local support agencies – citizens’ advice, local authorities, the Fuel Bank Foundation and many others and simply say – “how can I help you communicate to those who need help”. Please don’t wait to be asked – UKIFDA will be happy to make introductions if you want us to.

With that in mind, UKIFDA launched its Winter Wise campaign in September, which gives a lot of information about who to contact, and I am pleased to see a large number of distributors using the material in their social media accounts.

This situation cannot be treated as one that can be resolved overnight. It will take a lot of interconnected people to find the solutions. However, if there is something we can do, we should all play our part as much as possible.

As I said at the start, this is a complex topic that doesn’t have easy solutions. However, I hope the information provided can be of some help, particularly during a time of year when some of our customers may be facing difficulties.

With ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ playing in the background, I would like to thank you for your support throughout this year and wish you, your teams and all those close to you a Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.