As the cost of gas and electricity rises, energy firms should do more to help struggling families with children heat their homes, argues Justin Forsyth (pictured, right), chief executive of charity Save the Children...
No child is to blame for energy cost rises, and no child should pay the price.
While measures to protect the old from the cold are starting to materialise, these safety nets seldom reach the very young. Save the Children's latest research shows this is putting the health of many of our poorest children at risk.
Our No Child Left in the Cold campaign has uncovered a massive cash shortfall in the government's scheme to stop the poor from being hit hardest by winter fuel bills.
That means nearly 800,000 of the country's poorest families will get no help as bills rise and temperatures drop this year, because energy companies have not put enough money into the scheme.
This is forcing some of the parents we work with to make very tough choices. One single mum is cutting back on staples like bread so that she can afford to keep her children warm.
Others ration bathing to once or twice a week. Many are considering taking out credit cards or other loans on steep rates to meet short-term needs.
Medical research tells us that growing up in a cold home is bad for children’s health. It can worsen problems such as asthma, slow development and bring rises in hospital admissions.
It's also linked to drops in education performance. Can you imagine telling a shivering four-year-old you can't afford to keep him warm tonight (again), and then trying to make him do his reading?
There's a way out
The good news is there is a way to fix the problem. Under the Warm Homes Discount scheme, families who live in poverty and have young children can get a one-off discount of £120 on fuel bills from their energy supplier.
That means 800,000 families should get the payment, but so far the companies have only put enough money up to cover 25,000 families. So 97% of those families who qualify will miss out.
That's why our petition calls on energy companies to put the money in needed to ensure all eligible families get help to heat their homes by the end of this month.
There is more money – nearly £50million – coming online next year. This is excellent news, but it won't be enough and it won't come in time for thousands of children this winter.
Our new research also lays bare the true scale of today's fuel poverty problem. Over half the parents asked in a survey we commissioned said they were worried about paying their fuel bills this year, regardless of their income.
Spiralling energy costs are a problem for more and more families but they hit the poorest first.
That's not only because those already struggling to make ends meet have less to spare.
Poor pay more
Bizarrely, the poor often actually pay more for the services we all use, because they have to pay in advance and can’t get the cheapest tariffs.
They don't pay by direct debit because they can't risk getting hit with a bigger bill than expected. That could mean the children going hungry or the family getting into debt. So we're also calling on energy companies to make the cheapest tariffs available to all customers.
In the long term, of course, the way to get children out of fuel poverty is to create more, better-paid jobs for their parents and insulate our country's homes better.
But the children growing up cold right now can't wait for that to happen, or their health, well-being and education could be damaged beyond repair.
So our call is simple: energy companies must put more money into the Warm Homes scheme this year, or we may be left counting the cost in children's futures.
Sign our petition calling on companies to put more money into the Warm Homes Discount.
Views expressed are not necessarily those of MoneySavingExpert.com.