Claims of ‘40 million in fuel and food poverty’ are too high

9 June 2022
What was claimed

40 million people in the UK live in fuel and food poverty.

Our verdict

This number is too high. About 10 million people in the UK live in households reporting recent experience of food insecurity. Some estimates suggest that about six million people may be fuel poor. Many people may be in both groups.

A post on Facebook claims that in the UK there are “5 million children hungry” and “an estimated 40 million in fuel and food poverty”.

Although food and fuel prices have risen significantly, and there is evidence of a large recent rise in food insecurity, the numbers in this post are almost certainly too high.

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What do we know about food poverty?

A person or household is considered to be in food poverty, more often known as food insecurity, when they cannot “consistently afford and access sufficient healthy and nutritious food”, by one government definition, or if they do not have “access at all times to enough food that is both sufficiently varied and culturally appropriate to sustain an active and healthy life”, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The FSA’s most recent survey, conducted between April and June 2021, found that about 15-18% of respondents from England, Wales and Northern Ireland were food insecure.

The Scottish government’s most recently published survey, which was conducted between August and September 2020, found that about 8% of adults in Scotland were food insecure.

A more recent survey of the whole UK by the Food Foundation, conducted in April 2022, found that about 14% of households experienced food insecurity in the past month, with about 7.3 million adults living in these households. This represents a substantial recent rise.

The same survey found that about 17% of households with children reported food insecurity—amounting to about “2.6 million children aged under 18 who live in households that do not have access to a healthy and affordable diet”. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all these children themselves went hungry.

Altogether, this suggests that the problem of food insecurity in the UK is very serious, but it does not mean that five million children are affected, or that 40 million people are in total. We are not sure where these figures came from. Combining the Food Foundation’s figures suggests a total of roughly 10 million people live in households that recently reported food insecurity.

According to the latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions, between two million and four million children live in low-income households, depending on how those households are defined. This is not a measure of food poverty specifically, however.

What about fuel poverty?

From the way the Facebook post is written, it isn’t clear whether it is saying that 40 million people live in both food poverty and fuel poverty—or just that 40 million people experience at least one of them.

Fuel poverty is defined differently in different parts of the UK, but it broadly means having to spend a high proportion of household income on keeping the home at a reasonable temperature.

The latest official estimates classed around 13% of households in England as fuel poor, 25% in Scotland, 12% in Wales, and 18% in Northern Ireland. However, these figures do not necessarily describe the levels of fuel poverty right now. The England figure is based on data from 2020.

(England’s definition of fuel poverty excludes everyone who lives in a home with an energy efficiency rating of C or better, no matter what their income or the price of fuel. In 2020, 2.6 million households with incomes in the lowest 20% were not considered fuel poor for this reason.)

The Resolution Foundation estimated that about five million households in England were experiencing “fuel stress” following the rise in the energy price cap on 1 April this year—meaning they spend “at least ten per cent of their total household budgets on energy bills”. This would represent about 21% of the roughly 23.5 million households in England—although it may be affected by recent benefit changes announced by the Chancellor, which includes expanded support for energy bills.

Using its own methods, the charity National Energy Action estimated that about 6.5 million UK households would be in fuel poverty in April 2022, amounting to about 23% of the roughly 28.1 million households in the UK. However, this does not take account of some of the government’s recent energy support measures, which the charity says would make the figure smaller.

Could “40 million” be right?

If the Facebook post meant that 40 million people are simultaneously experiencing both food and fuel poverty, then at least 40 million must be experiencing fuel poverty. This would be about 60% of the UK population, which seems very unlikely, based on the data we have.

If the post meant that 40 million people are experiencing at least one of the two kinds of poverty, and if we assume that roughly 10 million people are experiencing food poverty—based on the Food Foundation estimate for the number living in affected households—then about 30 million additional people must be living in fuel poverty.

This would be about 45% of the UK population, which also seems very unlikely—especially since many of the people who are fuel poor may also be food insecure, which means they have already been counted in that measure.

Image courtesy of Dominik Kuhn on Unsplash

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