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Fuel-poor Households

Volume 491: debated on Thursday 23 April 2009

7. What estimate he has made of the change in the number of fuel-poor households between 2006 and 2009. (270304)

Between 2005 and 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, the number in fuel poverty increased to 3.5 million—down from 6.5 million in 1997. We are determined to do all we can, through measures to improve housing and increase the incomes of the most vulnerable and through proper regulation in the energy market, to tackle fuel poverty.

Given that the term “fuel poverty” does not seem to have been used once in yesterday’s Budget statement, can the Secretary of State confirm that Warm Front will be sufficient to address Age Concern’s assessment of the Budget that its failure to tackle fuel poverty will continue to leave more pensioners out in the cold?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman—and, of course, the Conservative party cannot support any of the measures that we took on public spending, because as we know it is completely opposed to increasing public spending at this time. The measures that we took on housing, including specifically £100 million for energy efficiency in the social housing sector, will help precisely some of the most vulnerable people in our country. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will announce in a written statement this morning an increase in the maximum Warm Front standard grant from £2,700 to £3,500. I think that will be widely welcomed, alongside other improvements in Warm Front, because it is helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I am very proud of the record of what we are doing to help some of the most vulnerable people in our country who are facing fuel poverty.

I welcome the measures that my right hon. Friend is taking to help people with energy efficiency in the home, but many people in recent weeks have received some of the largest fuel bills of their lives. What discussions has he been having with the energy companies to try to ensure that they treat people fairly and well and take account of the difficult economic situation that people currently face?

My hon. Friend is right about this, and we are discussing with the energy companies how to ensure that people, particularly those in difficulty, are treated properly. I am also pleased that Ofgem is changing the law on pre-payment meters and the unfair pricing that was taking place. I have said from the time when I came into this job that we wanted the quickest change possible in terms of outlawing that unfair pricing, and that is what is happening. We want people to be assured that the kind of abuses occurring in relation to pre-payment meters will not continue.

The reason why there was no mention of fuel poverty in yesterday’s Budget is that the Centre for Sustainable Energy estimates that fuel poverty has

“at the very least doubled since 2003.”

So I suspect that the Labour party will not be mentioning it in its manifesto either.

My constituency is in Devon, where 21 wards, including Exmouth Littleham Urban, fall within the worst 21 per cent. of wards in England. However, the real problem lies outside the main town centres and urban areas; it is to be found in the rural areas, where Warm Front is less effective because of the lack of accessibility to gas boilers and the problems with cavity wall insulation. Those things are so typical of the kind of houses that exist in rural areas in my constituency. What can the Secretary of State do to ensure that the disguised fuel poverty in rural areas resulting from Warm Front’s failing in that respect can be addressed urgently?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in the second half of his question, if not in the first. On his first point, as I said, fuel poverty has increased because energy prices have increased, but since 2002, some 5 million houses have been insulated under our programmes. Our record on fuel poverty and what we have managed to do through housing and income are not matched by the previous Government or, indeed, by other previous Governments. He knows very well that fuel poverty would be far higher if we had not taken those measures, which have cost lots of money and which the Conservative party opposes.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, with which I am more sympathetic, he is right to say that people off the gas grid face particular challenges. I think that he will see from this morning’s announcements that the non-standard grant level has also been increased. I hope that that will help people who are facing the circumstances that he describes. I also hope that if he has further concerns following the announcement, he will take them up with the Minister in charge of Warm Front.

The Secretary of State knows that the coverage of the Warm Front scheme is limited, but does he accept that for most homes investing in energy efficiency saves money on fuel bills?

I do, which is why we unveiled plans in February for “pay as you save” insulation, whereby people will be able to spread the costs of energy efficiency measures over a number of years; it will not be linked to the person in the house but to the house itself, so that the costs can be spread over 20 years or so. Therefore, part of the savings from the energy bills will be able to be used to fund to kind of insulation that we need. We have very ambitious plans for 7 million houses to have whole-house refurbishment by 2020 and all houses to have it by 2030. Unlike the Conservative party’s plans, those are costed plans; they have been worked through and they will work.

Yesterday, Greenpeace described the Secretary of State’s plans as strikingly lacking in ambition. If he accepts that savings can be made through investment in insulation, why, when households will face higher tax bills for years to come, is he resistant to our policy, which would give every home in the country an entitlement to £6,500-worth of immediate energy efficiency improvements, paid for from the savings that people make on their fuel bills? Why is he resisting that?

I will explain this to the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change wrote him a letter—he may have replied, but I am not aware of his reply. His proposal is that £6,500 will be available to every household in the country. That would cost £170 billion up front. As far as I can see, he has no idea where that £170 billion will come from and how he will raise it. I hope that he comes forward with that. I look forward to his having interesting discussions with the shadow Chancellor about how £170 billion of funding will be provided. I think it is the largest uncosted commitment made by the Conservative party, but of course it is not the only uncosted commitment that the Conservatives have made, and it shows that they simply cannot be trusted with the nation’s finances.