Students left out of energy poverty debate

The government is not providing targeted assistance to students with high energy bills. Municipalities are even advised not to give the one-off energy relief to students.

(Photo: Sincerely Media via Unsplash)

The House of Representatives debated the higher energy prices and help for households on the lowest incomes over a period of two weeks. Taxes on energy will be reduced a little bit, but the poorest households (those up to 120 percent of the social minimum) will also be receiving energy relief of 800 euros each. Only this relief will not be given to students. If they run into problems, students are allowed to make a claim from a different pot of money municipalities have at their disposal: ‘special benefits’.

Energy relief is intended for ‘independent households’ and the municipalities can decide for themselves which households this refers to. But more importantly, municipalities can also decide for themselves how to limit the target group for this relief payment.

Not for students
Students are not eligible, nor are street people and the homeless, and youth under the age of 21. “These groups are not included in households with an income up to the social minimum by Statistics Netherlands (CBS)”, it says in the explanatory notes for municipalities. “Students live in very diverse household situations, including when it comes to energy costs”, these same notes state. “Due to this diversity, individual special benefits are a more suitable instrument than categoric special benefits.”

In other words, no relief but possibly you can appeal to the municipality for ‘special benefits’. “This will ensure that financial support from special benefits will exclusively help student households that have a real need.”

Initially students were a topic of discussion in the debate. “I understand that students are not covered as a group, but they sometimes have a pressing need too”, said Pieter Grinwis of the ChristenUnie last week. “I heard about a lively student residence, with single glazing, that will have to shell out 2,400 euros extra this year.” He wanted to know whether the students could apply to their municipality for special benefits.

That was news to PvdA MP Henk Nijboer. “I should like to think that students would not have to apply for benefits”, he said. “Why does ChristenUnie think it makes sense that students are not covered by this measure? They have energy bills, too, don’t they?”

But the question was left hanging and in the subsequent discussion students were scarcely mentioned. CDA and D66 were the only ones who asked whether students could claim special benefits.

Make haste
After that the topic of students was lost in the debate. The House of Representatives choose to make haste, and the more subtle you make a measure, the longer it takes before the money can be distributed. “People are facing problems right now”, Mahir Alkaya of the SP said yesterday evening. “I don’t really think the package is good enough, but I want to prevent us getting tied up in more delays.”

In a motion, CDA MP Inge van Dijk called on the government to make sure people know about regulations like special benefits, so that they know what they might be able to claim. Otherwise they will miss out on financial assistance.

Carola Schouten, Minister for Poverty Policy, advised against the motion: “I’m already working on a broader action plan to tackle poverty and debt.” She underscored the essential aspects of the motion, but sending out special communications for each regulation is “quite a big job”, she said. “My fear is that we then won’t even be finished before the summer.”

National student organisation LSVb
The Dutch Student Union has been looking on with dismay. “Students have to cope with high rents and high student loan repayments”, says chairperson Ama Boahene, “and many students had little income during the coronavirus crisis. Now energy bills are loaded on top of that. It’s baffling that the government has not included students in the energy relief subsidy.”

One student suffers more from the energy crisis than another, just because one might live in a big student complex and another rents an attic from a landlady. This would make it difficult to know which students need help. But that’s no excuse in the view of the Dutch Student Union: “That’s putting the cart before the horse: first we have to see who needs help, and then modify the regulation accordingly. We are getting too worried about whether it can be properly arranged at the municipal level.”

HOP, Bas Belleman
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

HOP Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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