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From the frontline of the cost-of-living crisis – Fuel Poverty Awareness Day

This Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, 2nd December 2022, one of British Gas Energy Trust’s funded energy advisers tells us what it’s like supporting clients through the cost-of-living crisis.

By Joanna Lis-Kumar,

BGET-funded Money & Energy Adviser from Citizens Advice Sandwell & Walsall

My sister recently had an issue with her energy. She is someone I would describe as ‘fierce’, so I had no concerns about her getting the situation resolved, which she did.

But it made me think again about all the vulnerable clients I have had over the past two years. Most of them elderly, some disabled, others who did not speak English and some who had multiple vulnerabilities.

I thought how extremely difficult it is for them to get their message across. I know, I listened to them, I went through many battles for them, some were successes and some, oh well, let’s say it bluntly, had miserable outcomes. .

As financial capability and energy advisers we are thought to be the ones who can help with anything, and yes more often than not we can, but sometimes we can’t… even though we spend hours and hours trying to help.

Thankfully, most days I feel like I’m on cloud nine, having the feeling of fulfillment because I really have made a huge impact in someone’s life, but other times I feel hopeless because I can’t help the client over the obstacles they’re facing.

Let’s face it, an adviser’s role is to advise, help find ways out of the situation, provide clarity or answers, and facilitate solutions. We are a hope and sometimes a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Other people come to us thinking they have heard it all and there is nothing new we can tell them. And yet, after we have spent time with them, often more than they would have expected us to, they leave the appointment grateful and more aware. Not all the help that is available for the most vulnerable is advertised enough and so many clients are surprised to hear about it.

Sometimes the best advice we give, is how to reduce the energy usage. Some of our clients don’t have debts, they get all the benefits they are entitled to, and they budget their money well… but, hold on a second, is it them doing something wrong or is it the system which is not supportive enough?

I have so many examples of people who were previously able to support themselves, and now can’t comprehend how their life went from “normal” or, let’s call it, “manageable” to “I am stressed and anxious as I have never had debts before”… or even worse  “I am in a really dark place, I don’t know how to manage all this”…

This is the reality of the cost-of-living crisis. We aren’t just talking about people refusing to pay their energy bills. We are talking about people having to make choices between buying food or heating their homes.

As advisers, our role is not only about giving automatic advice, “ here is what you can do” kind of advice. Sometimes we are also therapists, psychologists or  “a friendly soul” who is the first person in months or years that the client feels has truly listened, truly helped, truly committed themselves to helping find a solution

We do start with formalities, but we are also humans who have families, problems and bills to pay. We all have been in dark places and maybe even some of us struggle to pay bills. But the urge to help is bigger, stronger and the results we get are truly rewarding. Some clients want to send us flowers, some bow with appreciation and others call us “angles sent from heaven”.

When I was starting this job, I thought nobody would want to listen to energy saving tips as they seemed so obvious to me, and many times when I advise I say that some of the tips can be such natural things our clients do but some can surprise. Many times, I heard clients saying “I did not realize this” or “are you serious” kind of responses.

As an example, one of the most surprising for them is to hear that the culprit of their misery of high electric bills is often the electric shower as it can cost around 80p for 10 minutes of use. Then they tend to start counting and I help, “so take all of your family members 6 x 80p each day, and that already gives £4.80/day, now I want you to calculate how much it costs a month… and how much would you save if you halved the time you all spend in the shower”…

I hear silence, then chuckle, then “oh my god”.

Some clients don’t like us, advisers, apparently telling them “how they should live.” But many more are interested once we start talking.

Thanks to our clients giving us the consent to use their anonymized data we can campaign for changes and raise awareness of what we see to be unfair treatment. We can’t be seen as a remedy to all the problems and will never be able to help if someone does not want the help, but we can at least try to navigate the way forward for our clients and have hope that our advice is listened to and followed.

All of this is to say that I hope the work we do makes a difference to our client’s lives, as this would mean, we are doing it right.