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Families in Bradford have been urged to check if they qualify for a government scheme worth £140 off their fuel bills, following a debt advice project led by The Children’s Society and Northern Gas Networks.

The Warm and Informed project, set up to tackle fuel poverty, helped 147 families across the city write off a total of £75,000 of energy debt over 10 months.

The pioneering partnership between the national charity and the gas distribution network for the north of England was launched last year after research estimated more than 10,000 children in Bradford lived in families who have suffered from energy debt.

The project identified and helped vulnerable families through a range of measures including energy debt and benefits advice, home assessments, free gas connections for off-grid households, and community workshops where parents learnt about energy efficiency and the risks of Carbon Monoxide poisoning.

Over the course of the trial scheme, almost 250 people attended 18 fuel poverty workshops. Seventy percent said they felt more confident managing their finances as a result and 147 households were given targeted advice to reduce fuel poverty.

Part of the process to help lift families out of fuel poverty involved helping them apply for the Government’s Warm Home Discount scheme, which is worth £140 per year to parents on low incomes with children under five.

Many families who benefited from the discount as a result of support provided by Warm and Informed said the scheme had made a huge difference to their finances.

However, recent estimates suggest that 1.9 million children across England live in families that miss out on the Warm Home Discount. The Children’s Society is calling for the Government to apply the discount automatically to all families with children living in poverty so they do not miss out.

Energy debt can have severe impacts on families and children, leading to rationing of energy use, cuts in other spending, and a detrimental impact on children’s physical and mental health.

Sam Royston, Policy Director at The Children’s Society, said: “The fact that over the course of this short trial we have been able to lift £75,000 of energy debt from the shoulders of struggling Bradford families shows how badly this sort of advice is needed.

“Unfortunately we found that knowledge of the Warm Home Discount among Bradford families is very low, which means many are likely to be missing out on this vital support. We are calling on the Government to make sure that the family of every child living in poverty in Bradford automatically receives this rebate on their energy bill.”

Tom Bell, Head of Social Strategy at Northern Gas Networks, said: “We’re delighted to have the opportunity to work with The Children’s Society. Northern Gas Networks has learned a lot about how best to engage with all customers including those that are particularly hard to reach and could be considered vulnerable.

“We are taking the key findings and working hard with the team at The Children’s Society to progress plans for further engagement with greater geographical reach.”

Cllr Richard Dunbar, Bradford Council’s Fuel Poverty Champion, said: “With such a wide range of providers out there, many of us don’t know where to start in getting the best deal on our energy. With almost 150 Bradford households helped through this scheme alone, hard-pressed local families have been helped to save more than £75,000. This is a huge sum and really demonstrates the importance of supporting families to access the support that’s available to them.”

You can read the full Warm & Informed evaluation report and findings here: http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/resources-and-publications/warm-and-informed-evaluation-and-interim-findings-summary

Case study

One Bradford mother who received support from the project was a recovering drug addict with a six-year-old girl. The woman and her partner, who had also been an addict, were now clean, but their debts had been mounting up over some time. When she sought help she had over £1,000 of energy debt, no money for the meter and was threatened with eviction. She saw an advisor, who worked with her over several weeks and applied for a grant from her energy company, which resulted in all her debt being wiped out.