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Fuel Poverty

Volume 506: debated on Thursday 25 February 2010

Three and a quarter million of those 4 million households in fuel poverty are designated as being vulnerable households. How are the Government going to meet their 2010 target for eradicating fuel poverty in such households, if that is still possible?

We have to recognise the additional challenge that has been set by rising energy prices over the past few years, but we still intend to work as hard as possible for those vulnerable households, giving help through the obligation on suppliers to insulate homes and through Warm Front, through which we directly fund home insulation. We are also giving help through people’s incomes by means of measures such as the winter fuel and cold weather payments, and through the control of prices, including the present voluntary agreement, which we are seeking to turn into a mandatory social price support scheme through the Energy Bill.

Does my hon. Friend accept that a large element of fuel poverty relates to the energy efficiency of the homes in which fuel-poor people live? Does he also accept that efforts to ensure that those homes are made properly energy efficient are a vital part of our attack on fuel poverty? What is his assessment of the likely impact of community energy response teams, community energy saving programmes, and other schemes, such as the Great British Refurb, on improving the energy efficiency of homes?

I agree that the most sustainable way of helping people to stay out of fuel poverty is to ensure that their homes are energy efficient. That is why we have concentrated so much on the energy companies’ obligation, under which more than 6 million homes have been insulated. Another 2 million have been insulated under Warm Front. The community energy saving programmes scheme is also important in guiding us towards choosing the best policy for sustainable energy programmes, which we intend to reveal shortly in our latest strategy.

As the promoter of the Bill that became the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, I am naturally disappointed that the targets that were set will not be reached this year. The Department is undertaking a review, so will the Minister tell the House when the results will be announced? What instructions will be given to officials to ensure that the strategy is put back on track?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has a long and distinguished record of campaigning on these issues in the House and outside it. He is right to say that we are undertaking a review of our present policies to see whether they can be made more effective, or whether we need new ones. I am giving evidence to the Select Committee in March, and I hope to be able to talk about the emerging findings of the review at that time.

In order to fight fuel poverty, Ofgem is now going to force energy supply companies to print on customers’ bills details of how their tariff compares with the company’s standard direct debit tariff. Why will that information be given out only on an annual statement? That will discriminate against active switchers who might not get such a statement because they have not been with a company for 12 months.

Again, I think that praise is called for. The hon. Gentleman knows that I wrote to him to praise his campaigning on the issue of supplying information to customers, and I am happy to take this opportunity publicly to do so again. The annual reports start this year, so it is perhaps a little early for us to say that it is not a good enough scheme. Every energy bill will contain information about consumption and costs to customers, and I am working with Consumer Focus, the watchdog and champion of all consumers, on improving the quality of such information so that we will be able to give better information to members of the public every day of the year.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are three components of fuel poverty: dwelling energy efficiency, fuel prices, and household income? Should not Opposition Members recognise that, although things are harder because of fuel prices, a lot more people would be living in fuel poverty if it were not for the increases in child benefit, the working tax credit and the winter fuel allowance?

My right hon. Friend is right about those three issues, and this Government have been determined, even during the worst global recession of my lifetime, to maintain spending on measures such as the winter fuel payment and child tax credits. Such payments have helped vulnerable consumers to pay their bills.

Given that, when we talk about fuel poverty, we are actually talking about poverty itself, what specific measures are being targeted at people who live in council houses?

My hon. Friend is right to say that general poverty is an important issue for the Government to address, which is why we have worked so hard to eradicate pensioner poverty. Now we are even legislating to eradicate child poverty in this country. We pay attention to helping council house tenants, through the payment of their rent and council tax through the benefits that we offer them.

It is nearly 13 years since the beginning of this Labour Government, and is it not a sign of the priority that they have given to dealing with the massive fuel bills that customers regularly receive—we still have no strategy to make every home a warm home—that within three months of the end of this Parliament there is still no coherent Labour policy on the issue?

Now come on. We have arranged, through the energy supply companies’ obligation, for insulation to more than 6 million homes. Through Warm Front, we have directly funded insulation for an additional 2 million homes. We have a policy that every home with a cavity wall or loft that is uninsulated will be insulated by 2015. Having dealt with those so-called easy wins, we recognise that the next issue for us to tackle is hard-to-treat properties, such as those requiring solid wall insulation. Our strategy, which we will unveil shortly, will show how we will address those matters too.

I thank the Minister for his kind words to my hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Billericay (Mr. Baron) for their campaigning on fuel poverty issues. Has he seen the recent report by Ofgem showing that the number of customers falling into debt on their electricity bills has increased by 105 per cent. on the previous year, and by a shocking 147 per cent. in the case of gas customers, and that those figures are getting worse? Does he recall the Secretary of State brushing aside our calls in 2008 for a Competition Commission investigation into energy prices, saying that it would cause two years of uncertainty? Does he accept that such an investigation would have been completed by now, and we could have had real evidence about the level of electricity and gas prices rather than the understandable suspicion and anxiety?

No. The investigation by the Competition Commission of the domestic oil companies took five years from complaint until remedies. In fact, Ofgem conducted a probe, completed its conclusions and issued the new licence conditions, which are now all in force, in less than two years. I completely reject the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the profit results announced by British Gas today. Does he agree that now is the time for energy companies such as British Gas to cut their prices to consumers?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We have just come through one of the most severe winters for decades, with customers struggling to pay their high energy bills. Any help that energy companies can give to those customers at this difficult time is welcome. As we can see from energy companies’ profit results, they can afford that help, so others should follow the lead that British Gas gave earlier this month and cut their prices now.