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Fuel Poverty

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009

2. How many people in (a) North-West Leicestershire constituency, (b) the east midlands and (c) England are in fuel poverty. (249983)

The most recently available sub-regional split of fuel poverty relates to 2003 and shows that, in North-West Leicestershire, there were about 2,300 fuel-poor households. More recent figures for the east midlands and England show that, in 2006, there were about 236,000 fuel-poor households in the east midlands and about 2.4 million fuel-poor households in England.

Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), 40 per cent. of social housing tenants are forced to pay over the odds for at least one kind of energy because they use prepayment meters. This is sharp practice resulting from utterly unacceptable laxity on the part of the regulator. Does the Minister agree that Ofgem is still failing lamentably to carry out its principal brief, which is to protect the interests of low-income consumers? This disproportionate and grossly unfair charge continues to push many of my constituents yet further into fuel poverty.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents who are in fuel poverty. I assure him that we are working as hard as possible to address this matter. We have made it absolutely clear to Ofgem and the energy companies that unfair pricing has to stop, in relation both to prepayment meters and to standard credit. Pressure from us has resulted in £300 million being taken out of the premiums paid by customers, including those using prepayment meters, but I agree that this has gone on for far too long. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, Ofgem is now consulting on changing the licence agreements in order to deal with unfair practices. He has also made it absolutely clear that, if the regulator does not succeed, we will act in his place.

I follow exactly the last two questions from colleagues on the Labour Benches. We have now had nearly 12 years of a Labour Government, and we still do not have a fair system for fuel pricing for domestic users. Will Ministers promise that, by the time of the next UK-wide elections—be they the European elections or the general election—there will be a pricing system under which people will not be penalised for the method by which they pay, such as a prepayment meter—

Order. I am not expecting the hon. Gentleman to make a speech. I think that the Minister will now be able to handle a reply.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has the privilege of being a Front-Bench spokesman, and making a speech is not what I expect. The Minister may answer.

We have made it absolutely clear that it is the regulator’s responsibility to act. The consultation is under way, and it ends on 20 February. It is designed to work out a system that will bring unfair pricing methods to an end. That is what we want, and we are determined to get it, one way or the other.

Will the Minister have discussions with colleagues about the definition of fuel poverty? Is there not a case for targeting winter fuel allowances more directly, and to extend them to people with long-term, chronic illnesses?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I assure him that all aspects of our fuel poverty strategy are under review. It is important for us to see how best we can target the available resources and do the best job. This is an extraordinarily serious matter; we are deeply concerned, and I am looking at every aspect of the scheme.

The fuel poverty data take time to collect. They are based on a survey of 8,000 households in England; the devolved authorities obviously have to carry out the same work. In order to get an accurate picture, it is necessary to take two years’ data and to combine them. As I review everything else, I am perfectly happy to look into the way in which the data are collected. We are living in rather extraordinary times in terms of price rises, and that is what has so heavily distorted the numbers of people in fuel poverty, rather than the condition of the properties.

My hon. Friend will know as well as I do that among the poorest in our society are those who depend on the private rented sector. Fuel poverty in that sector is acute, because private landlords have no incentive to provide proper insulation. What can the Government do to ensure that we incentivise those private landlords?

The Government have already attempted to incentivise private landlords, but my hon. Friend is correct in believing that the response has been inadequate. We clearly need to do more. We are currently preparing documents for consultation on a wide range of energy-efficiency measures and we will look at the role of private landlords in those consultations.

We are right to address the question of prepayment meters, but another issue that affects many of the poorest people is our inability to insulate very poor housing stock, particularly when it lacks cavity wall insulation. I know that the Government are working on this, but can they redouble their efforts to find ways around this problem, which affects the most vulnerable people?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman might be aware that the Prime Minister announced a new programme in September, putting £1 billion behind energy efficiency. We have a number of such programmes, the foremost of which in terms of numbers, is the obligation on the energy companies. Over the next three-year period, we expect 6 million households to benefit from the measures already in place. We always keep them under review, and if we can do more, we will. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the programme has been accelerated and that more households are being offered help under those programmes.