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The tragedy of fuel poverty and governmental failure

Many people are now having to choose between ‘heating or eating’ and governments are not willing to face up to the problem with progressive measures – argues British MP Joan Walley

With winter closing in and the mercury dropping, the cost of energy has become a hot topic. But while it is kicked around like a political football, it is easy to lose sight of the real issue – energy has become so expensive that tens of thousands of people are having to choose between heating or eating. This is surely unacceptable.

One look at the figures shows the true scale of the problem. In the last 10 years, gas prices have more than doubled – raising the average energy bill to more than £1,000. At a time of falling wages and an unprecedented squeeze on living standards, it is no wonder fuel poverty is on the rise. In my constituency alone, there are more than 6,000 households in fuel poverty.

With such figures, politicians of all parties recognise that something must be done and the current Energy Bill in Britain raised hopes that the government would seize the moment and end fuel poverty once and for all. Unfortunately the legislation does quite the opposite.

Instead, the government seems more intent on reducing fuel poverty through massaging the figures than by taking real steps to address the problem. For example, the bill redefines what constitutes fuel poverty that at a stroke reduces the number of fuel poor from 3.2 million households under the current definition to 2.4 million under the new definition.

The law also scraps the existing target to ‘eliminate’ fuel poverty and merely commits to ‘addressing’ the issue. It gives no details about what addressing it actually means, sets no targets for reducing fuel poverty and gives no timescales for action. Instead, it leaves everything to be set out in secondary legislation and therefore gives parliament no real opportunity to scrutinise the proposals.

The United Kingdom Environmental Audit Committee, a cross party committee of MPs which I chair, examined these proposals in detail and concluded: “The government’s proposed change of definition of ‘fuel poverty’ and weakening of the legislative commitment – to ‘address’ it rather than ‘eliminate’ it – will place a greater imperative on the government to demonstrate that it is committed to making fuel poverty a thing of the past. Unless the government is prepared to make that commitment and show how it will be delivered the changes to the fuel poverty definition and target, in part being made through amendments to the Energy Bill, should be stopped.” The committee is now awaiting the government’s response, which will be published in the New Year.

This debate is inextricably linked to that of fuel prices. With the price of energy expected to continue to rise long into the future, surely the most effective solution to reducing people’s fuel bills is to reduce the amount of energy that they use. In other words, making homes more energy efficient. That is why the government should legislate to ensure that low-income households do not live in a D or C-rated home by 2030. This target is simply mirroring the minimum standards for all new homes built today and would reduce the average fuel bill by £570 per year. This would help all and in particular the fuel poor, while also helping the UK meet its climate change targets. A win, win, win situation.

The UK government has also chosen to water down a substantial part of the Energy Companies’ Obligation. It provides insulation in people’s homes. Yet by targeting these green levies as the supposed cause of rising energy bills – when it is these very levies that are reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and helping insulate thousands of homes – we risk condemning the poorest households to unaffordable bills and cold homes.

I call on the government to take a more long term approach to energy policy that recognises that the only way to reduce energy bills is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, invest in renewable energy and embark on an ambitious home energy efficiency programme. That would create thousands of jobs, reduce fuel poverty and help keep bills down.

Joan Walley is a British Labour Party MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and chairwoman of the United Kingdom House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee

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