The cost of living crisis is putting lives at risk, MSPs have been told, with the boss of an energy advice organisation warning he is “fearful” of an increase in deaths over the winter period.
Fraser Scott, the chief executive of the charity, Energy Action Scotland, said spiralling prices meant that for many households “the choices are few and far between”.
He told members of Holyrood’s Energy Committee: “It’s becoming a case of where people are not having to choose between heating or eating at all – it is they simply can not afford to do enough of either.”
His comments came as the boss of energy giant ScottishPower told the committee that when it opened a new phoneline for customers worried about rising bills, 8,000 people called for help within the first week.
In this “deep crisis” the Joseph Rowntree Foundation insisted action was needed from both the Scottish and UK Governments.
Chris Birt, associate director for Scotland for the think tank, branded the response from the UK Government so far as being “woefully inadequate”, as he called for more assistance to be targeted at those most in need.
He said: “I don’t think collectively as a society, as Governments, whether it is the UK or Scottish Governments, we are treating this as the deep crisis that it is.
“We’re not even out of the Covid crisis and we know the impact that that has had on low income families already, and then we are piling on top of this a frightening rise in people’s energy bills in particular, and we see that coming through into a rise in food prices, transport costs, etc, etc.”
Mr Birt continued: “I’ve heard this described as a perfect storm but to me a storm is something we can not control, that’s the weather. We can control how households are able to deal with these rising prices.
“It is not the rising prices that make this a crisis, it is that people’s incomes have been eroded consistently for 10 years.”
He added: “This crisis needs to come on to the desks of governments, and immediately. We need to take action because lives are at risk.”
Mr Scott, meanwhile, told the committee: “I am fearful of the winter in terms of the loss of life, as excess winter mortality is likely to increase.”
He insisted: “We are facing one of the most difficult times we will ever face.”
To help those who are struggling with rising energy bills, he said there needed to be “an army of people out there supporting people”.
But Mr Scott said that there was a shortage of advisors, claiming that many of the organisations working in this area have “lost capacity because of the uncertainty around funding” for energy advice services.
He told the MSPs: “As we sit today many of our local charity organisations out there, the front line of support, are having to put people off. Their phonelines are going unanswered.
“People in crisis need support when they need it and at the moment we are all collectively failing those households.
“And the consequence of that will be that detriment to health and wellbeing.”
He said there needed to be a “national information programme” where people could access advice and support, warning that, as it stands, “the winter ahead will be absolutely dreadful for far too many households”.
Keith Anderson, chief executive of ScottishPower, said he had “real concern” about the impact of price rises in October – when the energy gap is expected to increase again.
The “size and scale” of the situation means Government intervention is needed to support the market, the ScottishPower chief executive said.
He told the committee: “About a week ago, we opened up a new phone line for customers to come through who had concerns about paying their bill and in that first week alone we had 8,000 phone calls from people, saying they have got serious, serious concerns about what they are going to do and how they are going to manage.”
Mr Anderson said there needed to be a “much more significant and structural shift in policies the Government have brought forward to date”.
He called for a new fund to be set up, that would take £1,000 off the bills of those “who are hardest hit” by energy price rises.
“That would put their bills roughly back to what it was before the gas crisis and allow them to manage through this period of time.”
He said the money could be put in a fund underwritten by the Government, which would then be repaid over a 10-year period.