Table of contents
Fuel poverty and children’s rights
Poverty is the most significant human rights issue facing children and young people in Scotland. The Covid pandemic made things worse and now the cost-of-living crisis and rising energy prices have pushed even more children and families into poverty.
Fuel poverty means many families are unable to keep their home sufficiently warm and/or use essential appliances for preparing food and completing daily tasks. Disabled children who rely on electrical medical equipment are at particular risk.
Children’s right to an adequate standard of living includes having a warm home and hot nutritious food. Energy insecurity can have a direct impact on the right to life, on physical and mental health, and on education, socialisation and play.
What does the UNCRC and ECHR say?
Article 2 of the UNCRC says that all children have the rights set out in the UNCRC and individual children shouldn’t be discriminated against when these rights are realized. Article 14 of the ECHR also says individuals shouldn’t be discriminated against in the enjoyment of their rights.
Article 3 of the UNCRC says that children’s best interests must be a primary consideration in all actions that affect them. This includes taking decisions around welfare and support that significantly impact families.
Article 4 says that governments should use all available resources to ensure children’s rights are upheld.
Article 6 of the UNCRC says that governments must ensure the survival and development of a child to the maximum possible extent, which often doesn’t happen for children in poverty.
Article 16 of the UNCRC says that children have the right to a private family life, including the right to a private space where they can go to be alone. Article 8 of the ECHR protects an individuals rights to respect to private life against intrusion.
Article 12 says that children have the right to express their views on matters affecting them and that those views be taken seriously and given due weight.
Article 23 says that disabled children have the right to enjoy a full and decent life. Disabled children who rely on electrical medical equipment are particularly affected by fuel poverty.
Article 24 of the UNCRC says that children and young people have the right to the best health possible. This includes the right to adequate and nutritious food, which can be affected when children and young people experience energy insecurity.
Article 26 of the UNCRC says that children and young people’s human right to social security should be fully realised.
Article 27 of the UNCRC says that every child has the right to a standard of living that allows them to develop physically, mentally, spiritually and socially. Fuel poverty can mean children have a standard of living below this threshold.
Article 28 of the UNCRC says that children and young people have the right to education. Being cold and not having enough hot nutritious food to eat directly affects children’s ability to learn.
Article 37 of the UNCRC says that children have the right not to be punished in a cruel or hurtful way. Article 3 of the ECHR says that individuals have the right to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment. The Commissioner is clear that the forced installation of pre-payment meters is a degrading and inhuman practice.
Our position and work
One of the focuses of our work has been on fuel and energy poverty and particularly concerns over the forced installation of pre-payment meters.
In August 2022, we wrote to Ofgem to question its decision to raise the energy price cap without considering the impact on children in Scotland.
We asked Ofgem – in line with its regulatory duties – to:
- demonstrate how it has considered the impact that raising the price cap on vulnerable groups of children and young people.
- detail how it intended to use its powers to protect children and young people from the impact of a rise in the price cap.
We became increasingly concerned that families already under financial strain were at risk of having a pre-payment meter forcibly installed. When you can’t afford to pay your bills, this amounts to disconnection by the backdoor.
In November 2022 we urged Ofgem to ban energy companies from all compulsory installations of pre-payment meters.
We pointed to the increased risks to children’s right to life, health and development by the energy companies’ decisions.
We remain concerned that energy companies are failing to effectively identify vulnerable individuals.
In February 2023, mounting pressure resulted in Ofgem asking suppliers to suspend the forced installation of prepayment meters and review their processes for dealing with customers who have fallen into arrears. Ofgem CEO Jonathan Brearley called on all suppliers to review all of their recent forced and remotely switched installations, and consider if any need to be reversed, and compensation offered where strict rules have not been followed.
UK Government duty
Our office has also reminded the UK Government of its duties in protecting children’s rights and its obligations to ensure energy companies act fairly and proportionately. In February 2023, we wrote to Graham Stuart MP, Minister for Energy and Climate, about the energy companies’ inadequate action over addressing the forced installation of pre-payment meters on families.
Our office was clear that the UK Government has a duty to take appropriate action to prevent, investigate, and punish violations committed by private companies. If it fails to do so then it is in breach of its legal obligations. The UK Government cannot allow energy companies to consistently be ‘falling short on correcting their ways’ when the consequences to children being pushed into poverty are so serious and long-lasting. Those families who had pre-payment meters forcibly installed must get a proper remedy including financial redress, and this must not be a lottery dependent on who their supplier is.
The UK Government must consider all of the powers and levers at its disposal to address these issues for families affected, including consideration of a statutory right to protection from disconnection.