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“The majority of people who contact us live with mental or physical disability or another health condition. This crisis will once again affect the most vulnerable people disproportionally.”
Spiralling costs of living are being felt by thousands of Islington residents. There are currently more than 11,500 families living in fuel poverty, and 27,400 people in households receiving housing benefit or council tax support (source: Islington Council). Sadly, Resolution Foundation’s forecasts show the problem is likely to be much longer lasting than talk of a “winter crisis” implies. Increased energy bills and prices may be set to stay high in the long term, while earnings have stagnated.
Cripplegate Foundation has been supporting Islington Law Centre (ILC) and Citizens Advice Islington (CAI) for nearly ten years. These local, well-established organisations offer professional, 1-2-1 phone and face-to-face services to Islington residents with financial concerns, providing support to navigate available benefits, maximise income, or to manage and challenge debts.
We recently spoke with some of the advisors working with ILC and CAI. They too are concerned about the bleak cost of living forecast and its impact on residents who are already stretched to their limits. CAI saw an increase of 20% in enquiries in the first six months of this year compared to last year. Reflecting on their recent conversations with residents, the ICL debt and welfare rights advisors worry that many residents may be switching off their heating, not using water or skipping meals to be able to cover their essential living costs.
Some people will stop attending their local youth club or community group because they can’t afford the bus fare. Overall, the daily stress of budgeting and managing debt will take its toll on people’s wellbeing and health. There is also rising demand for the vital services that smaller, local groups and charities provide. Our partner Help on your Doorstep have witnessed the numbers of referrals to Food Banks rising by 46% compared to this time last year. What’s more, advisors report that people have stopped taking tinned food items from Food Banks because they are worried about the costs of heating the food.
“Our partner Help on your Doorstep have witnessed the numbers of referrals to Food Banks rising by 46% compared to this time last year.”
Small businesses are affected too: the ILC debt advisors have spoken to many sole traders and small businesses such as hair salons and jewellery shops that are having to close down as they can’t afford the costs of heating their premises. They are being referred to a specialised business debt line for tailored advice.
The issue of high energy bills in poorly insulated homes is especially acute in the winter months. According to Citizens Advice Islington, there has been a marked increase in requests for information on how to manage the cost of fuel/utilities. With fuel prices continuing to rise, experts say prepayment meter users will be the hardest hit. According to the Fuel Bank Foundation, and as witnessed by our advice partners, the government’s price cap will not be enough to protect people who rely on topping up prepayment meters to afford electricity and gas this winter. What’s more, although the energy price cap was set at £2,500/year, this is still more than double the level of gas and electricity bills of last winter for all residents. What’s more, the cap is only in place until April 2023, and what happens to bills after that will depend in part on a government review.
As evidenced by many local community partners, certain groups will be particularly vulnerable to the crisis, including residents from some ethnic groups, disabled people, older people, single adults and single parents who are more often women. With ILC advisors reporting that over 90% of residents contacting their debt and welfare service have a mental or physical disability, the inequality is visible and stark.
In addition to other structural and financial challenges disabled and ill residents face, their health condition may decline significantly due to the poor heating and nutrition. Many residents also report problems with the customer support at their energy companies when they’ve tried to contact them. Residents who are not familiar with the system or have limited English skills, are often not aware of the importance of providing initial meter readings or the need to register when you move, which can lead to further problems with costs and billing.
“Many of our clients are already on a deficit/negative budget, meaning that their monthly costs are higher than their income, and they need to sacrifice some essential needs to secure others. These cases will rise over the coming months.”
People with negative budgets are most often disabled or residents with long-term health conditions. Living with a negative budget is not sustainable as residents simply can’t spend money they don’t have: instead, they will fall behind on household bills or into rent or council tax arrears, struggle to repay debts they already owe, and may be forced to go without essentials. According to the ILC debt advisor, single residents with a mild disability or physical illness are particularly vulnerable as they might be unable to work, or have low income or part-time jobs, but don’t qualify for disability benefits such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) or Disability Living Allowance (DLA). What’s more, many single residents suffer from loneliness and social anxiety and/or don’t have family members to connect with.
Islington is a borough with a strong, collaborative network of advice services and other voluntary organisations to make sure residents can get help and access the best support locally.
“Seeking out debt advice for existing debt is a crucial first step residents should take.”
People up and down the country need urgent action and support from the government. But while waiting for the bigger policy changes on a national level, Islington residents can get support and guidance from many dedicated local community organisations around the borough. Well-established advice organisations such as Citizens Advice Islington and Islington Law Centre, together with local outreach partners like Help on Your Doorstep, Age UK Islington and Manor Gardens, are making huge efforts to reach out to vulnerable residents, while some new local initiatives, such as churches, are running warm safe centres with food pantries that are open daily for vulnerable people.
Citizens Advice Islington, Islington Law Centre and Debt Free London all offer support for people with existing debt concerns. Seeking help for existing debt is crucial especially in the current economic situation: debt advisors can help the residents prioritise their payments depending on their income, and available benefits. Since most debt concerns and cost of living -related worries can’t be resolved over a quick phone call, ILC advisors are committed to supporting individual residents for as long as their help is needed.
“Some clients might need assistance over 7-8 months, depending on their circumstances. I love my job and feel lucky to be able to help residents over a long period of time if necessary.”
Find out more and donate to the Islington Crisis Appeal