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Fuel Poverty

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered fuel poverty.

I am grateful for your arrival, Mr Streeter. “My home lets out the heat. My heating fuel is expensive, and I can’t afford it. I am in fuel poverty.” That is the personal testimony of more people in my constituency than anywhere else in England, and the UK is the leakiest country in the EU, so homes in my neck of the woods could be among the leakiest in Europe. This is a national issue, not an isolated problem for the west country. Fuel poverty affects 10% of the population of England, and the situation is even worse in Scotland, Wales and Northern—may I say that I am so grateful to everyone who has turned up this morning to support and take part in the debate?

Jenny Holland, from the Association for the Conservation of Energy, said this just before the spending review:

“Of the 26 million households in the UK, four out of five have poor levels of energy efficiency, rated band D or below. As today’s findings clearly show, this places our nation right at the bottom of the European rankings for housing and fuel poverty and represents an energy bill crisis for UK consumers. Ministers must now embrace the opportunity for a national energy efficiency infrastructure programme”.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. As an MP representing a constituency in Northern Ireland, I concur with his viewpoint, but does he agree with me that opening up infrastructure funding for energy efficiency improvements has massive potential both to improve lives by reducing fuel poverty and to save the taxpayer money by reducing NHS winter costs?

Certainly. I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She is absolutely right. Reducing the impact on hospitals in terms of admissions, but also creating skilled jobs and reducing emissions, are good reasons to use the infrastructure money to tackle and solve this problem.

I congratulate successive Governments on initiatives that they have introduced to tackle fuel poverty. I also congratulate the many MPs who have addressed this issue in this place. There have already been many Westminster Hall debates on fuel poverty, including one just a few weeks ago. However, my constituency demonstrates that not enough has been achieved. My constituency has more leaky homes than anywhere else in rural England. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are in the top three areas in England for homes without central heating; 14% of homes in Cornwall do not have central heating and 22% of homes in the Isles of Scilly, which is also in my constituency, do not.

One part of the United Kingdom that the hon. Gentleman left out at the beginning of his speech was Northern Ireland, but we will forgive him for that. It is the case that 42% of the households in Northern Ireland are in fuel poverty. The Government have promised, I think, £640 million or £650 million to go towards efficient homes. We trust—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me—that all the regions of the United Kingdom will get their fair share of that.

Certainly. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention, although I think that I did mention Northern Ireland at the beginning. If I did not, I apologise. It is certainly in my notes, so I apologise if I missed it out. [Interruption.]

My hon. Friend mentions the west country; Northern Ireland has been mentioned as well. Dorset and the more rural areas are also affected by fuel poverty. When it comes to improving efficiency, does he agree that there should not just be a fairer share, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) said, but that the money should be targeted at those who are in fuel poverty in order to tackle this issue?

Certainly, because that would result in more help for my part of the world. We are not helped by the fact that we have an ageing population. We all know that right across the country the population is getting older and more vulnerable to ill health as a result of poorly insulated homes. Furthermore, the west country is very rural, which means that delivering solutions such as the energy company obligation is expensive and the energy companies have gravitated their efforts towards more urban areas. In my part of the world, ECO measures to help older people have been unremarkable, with only half the national average benefiting from that help.

I have noticed since being elected that it has become a tradition to read out constituents’ letters and emails in order to make a point. I now want to do just that, because I have had an email from someone on the Isles of Scilly who sums up exactly the scale of the challenge in my constituency. He says:

“I write from the Isles of Scilly, where I have just moved with my partner and my parents. We have moved into an old property which has little-to-no insulation and thus is extremely cold. I have therefore been researching grants which may be available to help, and in particular the Energy Companies Obligation Scheme…I was extremely disappointed to find that these sort of schemes seem to finish at Land’s End and that—as far as I can tell from my research—no energy company will provide free insulation for us on the islands. I understand, of course, that there would be increased costs involved for the energy companies to offer insulation on the islands, but frankly feel that a government-backed scheme should benefit all people in the country, irrespective of geographical location. On Scilly it seems we are hit by a perfect storm when it comes to energy bills. Much of the housing stock on the islands is very old and of traditional construction, so uninsulated. Incomes here are among the lowest in the country. Combine this with the fact we have no mains gas so have no practical alternative to inefficient and costly electricity to…our homes, and the fact energy companies will not offer free or subsidised insulation to households on the islands, despite this being a government scheme which should benefit all, and I think you will agree we have a serious problem.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he knows, I have strong family connections to the Isles of Scilly so I am familiar with the situation there. The people are heavily reliant on bottled gas to provide for cooking and sometimes for heating. Does he agree that the Government could help the market for bottled gas? They could try to bring down the prices, which are often very high and do not seem to come down when other energy prices fall.

I welcome that intervention because 57% of homes in Cornwall are off grid. It is the right thing to address, and those bills need to be cut.

I accept that older homes are harder to insulate, that efficient heating systems are expensive, and that it is more costly to deliver ECO in a rural area. In a low-wage area such as mine, households do not necessarily choose to replace their windows and insulate their properties adequately. So, given the scale of the problem, is it really worth the effort? Does it really matter? Why is fuel poverty such an issue?

As we have heard already in an intervention, fuel poverty affects people’s health. It is more difficult for people to live full and healthy lives in cold homes and the result is extra demand on acute services and social care. That alone is a good reason for us to deal with the problem. It is difficult for young people living in a cold home to study and succeed as they cannot really concentrate, and it concerns me that people are held back simply through poor housing. We have high energy use and high carbon emissions.

The hon. Gentleman is making a succinct point but it is important to remember not only young people, but people such as the ex-miners in my constituency, who have chest complaints and need to keep the heating up a bit higher. Unfortunately, a huge number of people also suffer from cancer and have been deeply affected by fuel poverty as they have to keep the heating up because they feel the cold more than other people.

Just before the hon. Gentleman continues his powerful speech, may I point out that 13 colleagues are trying to catch my eye in the main part of the debate? Wind-ups will begin at about 10.30 am. Do the maths—13 speakers in about 35 minutes. The more interventions there are, the longer it will take and the fewer the colleagues who will be able to speak.

I take that point and I will speak quicker. I thank hon. Members for all interventions so far because they help to strengthen the argument that more must be done.

I mentioned high energy use and high carbon emissions. We are all now concerned about what we can do to look after the planet and we take that responsibility seriously. However, the real concern for me is that in one of the richest nations on the planet, people are still choosing to heat or eat. We should resolve that once and for all. I am concerned that as the Government quite rightly push forward with rolling out the smart meter programme—a piece of technology with enormous benefits—there is a potential problem. Some people may be sat in the corner of the room choosing to use nothing but an electric fan heater because of their concern about energy costs. A smart meter might further aggravate the problem, and they might choose to heat their home even less. We need to be careful that we provide the right kind of heating in people’s homes as the smart meter programme rolls out.

What am I doing to help? It is not fair for me to bash the Government if I am not prepared to tackle the situation myself. Soon after I was elected, I found a work experience student called Primrose at the local college. She now spends a day a week in my office, looking at the issue of renewable energy and fuel poverty. This Friday, she is bringing together people from my constituency and from further afield who are concerned about the issue, and who have solutions and ideas so that they can help me to understand the issue better. We have a conference on Friday to put forward a strategy for west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which I hope the Government will be able to work with me to deliver.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that every hon. Member must do more to raise awareness in the wider community of facilities, in terms of energy, insulation and the price of fuel, that are already available but are not being availed of in many cases?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we have a responsibility to make people fully aware of what is available, and to help them take the matter into their own hands, if possible.

I shall be brief, because I want to bring my speech to an end. This is the time to address fuel poverty. Today, we have better information through research, we have advances in technology and innovation that bring the solution within reach, and we have a Government who believe in reducing energy use, reducing household costs, reducing hospital admissions and investing in infrastructure. I welcome all those things. We are well placed to wage war on fuel poverty.

There are things on which we need to shed some light. The Government’s fuel poverty figures state that 1% of fuel-poor households were brought up to band C in every year from 2010 to 2013. At that rate it would take 100 years to bring all fuel-poor properties up to band C. Under the new ECO from 2018, a target of 200,000 hard-to-reach properties will receive low-cost energy efficiency measures. I have 6,924 fuel-poor households in my constituency and I estimate that, within the 200,000 target, only 302 of those households will get help each year, so we have a long way to go to address the problem.

We are also spending £320 million a year on helping vulnerable households with their energy bills. As I understand it, and I am willing to be corrected, that money, although it is a lifeline to those households, does nothing to reduce heat loss; it simply reduces the cost of the heat that we waste. There must be a better way to get value for money.

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

My shopping list, and it is not very long, is that the Government should invest a modest level of capital infrastructure funding in an energy efficiency programme that can deliver those additional economic benefits, boost energy security and economic productivity, reduce fuel bills and save lives—it would also benefit our local economy.

I would like to see a system similar to Scotland’s. I have heard what Scottish MPs have said, but it is important to note that it is a devolved issue and local authorities in Scotland receive money on a needs-based formula that they can use to address this problem. I would like to see something similar in England and other parts of the UK, so that we can receive such funds on a needs-based formula, which responds to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), to ensure that all households in the area receive an offer to have the energy efficiency of their home improved.

I would like to see efficient heating upgrades and the installation of renewable heating systems in off-grid households. There are small businesses in Cornwall that have developed the technology to do that, and not only would we dramatically reduce energy costs and pollution but we would create skilled jobs. Porthleven is a fairly contained and important part of my constituency. It is off grid, and residents have been told that eight households will need to put in £3,000 if they want gas to be supplied.

One solution that the Government should enable, or at least support if they can, is a utility that uses ground-source heating. I have been in the building industry, and we have put ground-source heating in barns by simply running pipes into the ground to collect warm water and to take out the heat to heat our homes and supply hot water. It is possible to do that for homes, and it could be possible to do the same for large estates. We could effectively run a new utility, so that people can tap in and pay a standing charge to cover the cost of installation. That is one idea among many that we could use and pilot in my part of the world if the Government are looking for such examples.

It makes sense to invest in addressing fuel poverty—it is a win-win situation. I finish by quoting Ed Matthew, the director of the “Energy Bill Revolution” campaign:

“By far the greatest opportunity to cut energy bills is to invest in energy efficiency infrastructure programme for our nation’s leaky homes. Recent research from Frontier Economics shows this would bring an £8.7 billion net economic benefit to the country, comparable to HS2 Phase 1 and Crossrail. This would boost GDP growth, reduce UK reliance on gas imports and help deliver a net increase in employment across the country. It would also help keep energy bills down, reduce health costs and warm up the homes of the fuel poor.”

Thank you, Sir Roger Gale.

The late Sir Roger Gale. I apologise to hon. Members. I am afraid that unavoidable circumstances kept me from the Chair. Apparently I have no power to extend the sitting. I would be more than willing to stay in the Chair, but I have no power to do so, so I am afraid that I have cost you eight minutes by my tardiness. That means, given the number of Members present and wishing to speak, that I will have to impose a time limit. I suggest that we try for three minutes. I will not be as rigorous as I might otherwise be, but if hon. Members can respect that, we will try to get everybody in, as is my custom.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate and on a fine speech, the vast majority of which I agree with. I absolutely agree that fuel poverty is one of the most significant social problems in the UK and that more needs to be done, but what I find most frustrating about this debate is that this is an issue that can be solved. The technology and the workforce exist, but this country so often lacks the political will to address the issue. The Government’s strategy is not delivering the kind of gains that we need.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the UK has the worst fuel poverty in Europe except for Estonia. In my constituency, like his, some 10% of all households are in fuel poverty. What does that mean? It means that children are going to bed cold, that teenagers are falling behind at school when they should not and that pensioners are afraid to put on the heating when they need it, simply because our housing stock is so old and inefficient. Understanding that point is crucial, because we will not end fuel poverty until we can substantially reduce households’ energy consumption—not just the cost of each unit of energy but the overall consumption of energy in each household.

That is different from the Government’s approach. The Government often talk about fuel poverty. They talk about more liberalisation of the market and ending subsidies for renewables, but that will not bring us the gains that we need. Every form of new generation will require some form of subsidy. Renewables will need subsidy until they become cost-effective, nuclear will always need subsidy, and new gas will need subsidy as part of the capacity market. The only answer to those problems is greater energy efficiency and cutting consumption, which can be done.

Energy efficiency is the way that we can address climate change while keeping bills affordable, and of course it is far cheaper than any new generation that we could bring into the system. What does that mean? It means sorting out the simple stuff that needs to happen—cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, draft-proofing and modern windows. Energy companies are quite good at getting that out the door and into households, and they have gained considerable expertise in Government policy over the past few years. But energy efficiency also means addressing the very difficult stuff, such as solid wall insulation. Half of all fuel-poor homes in the UK require solid wall insulation, and a Government programme is required because it will never be economical for householders to make such large investments themselves.

In policy terms, we have now lost the green deal and the pay-as-you-save model. We are left with ECO, which I have never liked because it is not fit for purpose. ECO produces huge fluctuations in work for the workforce and in the price received for that work. Fundamentally, ECO does not go to the people who need it most. ECO brokerage will always find people who are in need, but not the most need. It will find people who qualify but who can also make a personal financial contribution, yet millions, or at least thousands, of people in the UK desperately need help but cannot make that contribution themselves. The Government changed ECO after one year of operation, and it does not offer anything for solid wall insulation. Now that we do not have the green deal, we are seeing many jobs lost in the energy efficiency sector at a time when we need them more than ever. Big and small companies have gone to the wall under this Government and at the end of the coalition Government’s time in office. That is a tragedy, because we need that workforce, those jobs and those skills more than ever.

The Government could pursue many alternatives to make things happen. We should have zero-interest loans, as happens in Germany, where they have been a tremendously successful programme for people who can afford to pay. There should be stamp duty incentives for buying a more efficient home or for turning an inefficient home into a more efficient one.

There should eventually be a degree of compulsion. Measures such as cavity wall insulation and loft insulation are effectively still free under Government programmes. Given our climate objectives, there has to be a point where we say to people, “If you want to move house, you’ve got to have these programmes in.” They are effectively free; it is just a matter of getting them out the door.

There are also a lot of small changes that can be made. In this country, 10 million homes do not even have thermostats. If someone does not have a thermostat, they cannot control their heating to any substantial degree, yet that problem could be easy to solve. In addition, we need to do something about the private rented sector, where I believe standards—particularly on energy—are extremely poor.

There is a lot more that I would like to say, Mr Gale, but I will respect the time limit. I will simply say now that we have the workforce and the technology to deal with this issue, but what we do not have is the political will. I would love to see that situation being addressed.

I recently had the privilege of launching in this House a report entitled “The poor pay more”, by the debt counselling charity Christians Against Poverty. It outlines concerns that I want to express today about a specific issue, which is the prepayment metres that 10.8 million people across this country use.

It is a sad fact that the poorest in our country pay more for their fuel. As the CAP report highlights, the reason is that people on prepayment meters face higher tariffs and charges than those who pay in other ways. They simply cannot get on to the best tariffs, so they are forced to pay more, and they often have to turn to payday lenders to do so. Their difficulties are compounded by the fact that prepayment meters are predominantly used by vulnerable consumers: lower-income households, the unemployed, those with long-term disability and often those with mental health challenges, terminal illness or learning disabilities.

I do not have time to cite CAP’s statistics, but they reveal how extensive the problem is. Prepayment meter consumers are more susceptible than others to consumer detriment, because they find it more difficult to engage with suppliers, or to switch to or obtain the best tariff. Higher tariffs are not just a penalty for those in arrears; they affect thousands of people who are unable to engage effectively and switch. Those people need more support to engage effectively, and I hope that the Minister will consider how that support can be provided.

Ofgem estimates that PPM users pay an extra £300 a year compared with those on the cheapest tariff. Moreover, even if those people can engage effectively, they face other significant barriers that prevent them from switching to more competitively priced deals, such as charges for the installation or removal of a PPM, credit card checks and security deposits. Put simply, this is a matter of social justice; the poor should not pay more for such a basic and important commodity.

The unfairness of the situation is starkly illustrated by the statistics in CAP’s report, and behind every statistic is a human story: 8% of PPM users never use their heating in the winter, and a quarter use it for less than two hours a day. People miss hot meals, or do not wash themselves or their clothes. Many people fall behind in making payments, or have no energy supply at all.

Official disconnection figures hide the true statistics. In 2015, there were only 192 instances of official disconnection. However, in most cases where a customer falls into difficulties, energy suppliers install a PPM instead of disconnecting a supply. Then when customers cannot afford to put money into their meter, they are classed as a “self-disconnection”, so they do not fall within the official figures. The number of such self-disconnections is high. In 2014, approximately 300,000 new electricity PPMs and 320,000 new gas PPMs were installed. Customer Focus estimates that one in six PPM users are self-disconnecting. Current methods of measurement simply do not detect the level of disconnection that exists or the human stories behind each disconnection.

I could go on, Sir Roger—there are other points I would have liked to make, for example the need for clarity about standing charges over the summer months. Currently, when PPM users put money in as winter approaches, they often find that all their money has gone, simply to pay for the standing charges. That situation needs to be looked at, and people need help to understand it.

We also need to ensure that more innovative social and smart tariffs are introduced. Steps should be taken to ensure the introduction of smart meters, which promise infrastructure savings for suppliers and cost reductions for PPM users. They should be given as a priority to those who currently have PPM meters. However, with full smart meter roll-out not expected for another five years, action is needed today to ensure that the price differentials that 10.8 million PPM users currently experience are eradicated.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Roger, although I will point out that if you were 23 minutes late for the jobcentre you would run the risk of being sanctioned.

I will deal specifically with fuel poverty in the highlands and islands. I am grateful to Changeworks, which has estimated the percentage of households in my region that are in fuel poverty. It bands each locality in the highlands and islands into groups. On its calculation, there is no district in my constituency that has less than 47.9% of households in fuel poverty, and there are a number of districts where fuel poverty is evident in at least 73.5% of households. If I look to the Western Isles, across from my constituency, fuel poverty is at an eye-watering 71% of all households.

The highlands and islands experience the harshest climactic conditions in the UK and record levels of fuel poverty. There is far greater area-wide dependence than elsewhere on electricity for heating, as well as for lighting, but the standard unit price charged is 2p per kWh more than in most other parts of the UK and 6p more per kWh for various “economy” tariffs that are on offer. Perhaps 2p per kWh does not sound much, but it is a price premium of 15%. That is the price set by this Government for living in the highlands and islands of Scotland.

On top of that, there is also far greater reliance on domestic heating oil and solid fuel in off-gas grid areas, which pushes up heating costs still further. The Government must accept that having 14 regional markets in the UK, with consumers in the highlands and islands paying a premium, is discriminatory. We must have a universal market throughout the UK. I must ask the Minister why highlanders and islanders are being penalised. The lack of action on creating a national market for distribution is partly responsible for the high rates of fuel poverty in my constituency. Fuel poverty is made in Westminster, but highlanders and islanders have to pay the price. Fuel poverty is delivered to Scotland from Westminster.

The Government have the responsibility and the power to do something about the situation. I might add that it should have been tackled under the last coalition Government, when Liberal Democrat Ministers such as Danny Alexander sat on their hands.

On 23 December last year, news that was designed to bring Christmas cheer to those of us in the highlands and islands was reported as follows in The Press and Journal:

“The UK Government has today announced that it will continue to protect bill payers in Scotland from higher electricity distribution costs.”

The Minister who is here today said:

“It is not right that people face higher electricity costs just because of where they live.”

I agree with that, but let us take the action today that is needed to create a national distribution market.

It is a pity that I do not have the time go through my other points, but that is the most important matter, and the Minister must act on it. Stop this unfairness, and let us create a national market in the UK.

Fortunately, I speak very quickly, so I hope that I can manage to say what I want to in three minutes.

I speak as the co-chair of the all-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency, formerly the warm homes group, which tries to tackle the trilemma of fuel poverty, namely high energy prices, low incomes and the very poor energy efficiency of our domestic housing stock.

We saw energy bills falling early last year, with all the major suppliers passing on to their customers—to some extent—savings from the lower global wholesale gas prices. That should have helped many householders make their finances go a little further. I am pleased to say that the Government were also able to reduce energy bills by an average of £50 per household by reducing the green levies that had been placed on bills. However, we must go much further, as hon. Members have highlighted this morning.

I draw Members’ attention to a report by the Turn2us charity, which has highlighted people’s lack of awareness of the financial help and support that is currently available for households. There are many schemes that can provide support for people who are struggling to heat their home, whether directly through their energy supplier or by encouraging people to seek information from the many excellent campaigns, such as the “No Cold Homes” campaign, which ran last December, and the Home Heat Helpline, which I regularly recommend to my constituents—I believe that many hon. Members do the same.

This is cold homes week, when we will consider action on fuel poverty and excess winter deaths. Publicising excess winter deaths is a good way of raising the issue in the papers and getting headlines, but the reporting of such deaths does not cover the whole story. The truth is that cold homes cause excess morbidity and have a personal cost both for young people, who suffer many extra illnesses as a result, and for our older people, which causes extra admissions to our hospitals. The cost to the NHS and our social services must be enormous, and for some reason we never seem to manage to take those two different cost streams for the Government into account. One doctor commented to me, “If only I could prescribe insulation to my patients, rather than expensive drugs. How much more cost-effective that would be, and how many fewer admissions I would have to hospital and my surgery.”

When it comes to measures to tackle fuel poverty and home energy efficiency, one group of people is persistently overlooked, and that is park home owners. I have the biggest park home in the country in my constituency, Kings Park, and I was recently handed a petition by residents calling for park home owners to receive the same home improvement grants as other homeowners. I duly passed it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for a response. Park home owners are overwhelmingly older people on fixed incomes who have often lived rather beyond their savings. It is a superb way of downsizing and a marvellous lifestyle for older people. If we could have more older people in low-rise accommodation such as park homes, it would be a great blessing for social services and all the rest of it, but their issues must be addressed. Park home owners have told me that they are not eligible for the energy company obligation. Frequently, when they apply for it, the companies refuse them.

I conclude by saying that I will not offer any solutions. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) have offered suggestions, and it must not be beyond the wit of man to sort the problem out and end the need for an all-party group on fuel poverty.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing this debate on a truly shocking issue. I am shocked that we are still having to debate it, but clearly the Government are not as shocked as me. In my constituency, more than 5,000 households live in fuel poverty. That is 13.5% of all the households in Burnley and Padiham.

What does fuel poverty mean? There has been a lot of talk about it in recent times, but that is all it is: talk. I will tell the House what fuel poverty means. The bottom line is that it means being cold. It means someone spending so much of their income paying for fuel that there is not enough for all the other costs of living. It means misery. It means children coming home from school on a cold winter’s day to a cold house. It means old people deciding to spend the day in bed to save on fuel or skimping on food so that there is enough money to pay the gas bill. It means avoidable winter deaths. In the UK, an average of 65 people die each day whose death can attributed to a cold home. In the past three years, an average of 40 people have died each year in my constituency because they could not keep warm at home.

This weekend, people will die of cold in their own homes in the world’s fifth largest economy because they cannot afford to pay the high prices charged by energy companies. Although the cost of fuel to the Big Six energy companies has tumbled, they have not cut prices to match. Rather than make them do so, the Government have chosen to attack renewable power. It is calculated that every seven minutes in winter, an older person dies from the cold. Even relatively mild January temperatures increase heart attacks and strokes. Nearly two thirds of over-65s worry that they will not be able to pay their fuel bills and say that they are more likely to cut back on their energy usage than turn their heating up, even on the coldest of days.

It is not only the elderly, either. More than five million British households live in fuel poverty, and people have to devote more of their income to energy than in any other EU country except Estonia. That is a national scandal. In the past two years, the wholesale price of gas and oil has fallen dramatically, and meanwhile the Government seem content to sit back and let the energy companies maintain ridiculously high prices. As with most things, it is the poorest and most vulnerable households that feel the pain most. They are more likely to have low incomes, more likely to live in damp or poorly insulated houses and more likely to pay through the nose for their fuel courtesy of a prepayment meter. Reform is long overdue, and it is time the Government put a stop to the scandal of our time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I echo others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this timely and important debate. My constituency in Somerset has a huge number of homes in fuel poverty. That is very much part of the unwelcome trend whereby we see a direct correlation between sparsity of population and fuel poverty. That is pretty bad news for the people of Somerton and Frome, scattered as they are across 900 square miles and more than 130 towns and villages. That real sense of isolation is reflected in the way that fuel poverty is often considered a bit of an outlier in debates on energy, and subordinate to the two big issues of renewables and headline energy costs for consumers.

However, I share my hon. Friend’s guarded optimism that in tackling the issue, we also create opportunities. Properly insulated homes will reduce carbon emissions and hospital admissions, as well as creating jobs. I am sure that Members of all parties will have welcomed the Secretary of State’s recognition that fuel poverty is a particular problem for rural areas, and I very much hope that the consultation that is currently under way will consider how the Government can respond to that correlation sustainably and productively.

The past four years have apparently seen 375,000 people taken out of fuel poverty, but we have much further to go. Recent estimates suggest that a massive 2.3 million households still need to be supported. Fuel poverty is a problem that sprawls across many different areas: deprivation, carbon reduction, health, the cost of living and rural isolation. That makes it all the more difficult to address directly, but perhaps that overlap presents us with an opportunity to have an impact on a variety of different issues that reinforce and entrench disadvantage.

This debate is important, and it is right that we reflect on it and on the representations made by so many constituents, but it is important that we think practically and that solutions are found, whether they are a UK-wide needs-based formula, greater efficiency awareness, insulation drives or stamp duty incentives. Whatever the solutions might be, this is a real and powerful issue on which progress seems rather overdue.

I thank you, Sir Roger, for allowing me to speak on this matter, and I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for setting the scene clearly. I think it is the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) who says that Jim Shannon can get more words to a minute than any other MP. That does not mean that I will talk even faster than I normally do, because that will make it more difficult for the Minister to understand, but I will make a short comment and raise a few important issues. It is a pity that we do not have the time, but that is where we are.

It is a sad reflection on society that in this day and age, people across the fifth largest economy in the world—our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—are unable to heat their homes. Other Members have said that, but I wanted to put it on record. Despite the fact that fuel poverty has been an issue for many years, it continues to grow across the United Kingdom. The population in my constituency, and indeed across the whole United Kingdom, is ageing, and we are seeing the economic consequences of that in older households. We can talk about protecting the most vulnerable in our society and advocate better treatment of our most vulnerable, but we need to walk the walk and talk the talk.

Average electricity costs in Northern Ireland are 15% higher than on the mainland, so we know the consequences of fuel poverty only too well. Unfortunately, we have the highest levels of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister said that 42% of Northern Ireland households experience fuel poverty. That is a rate 13 percentage points higher than in Wales and 27 percentage points higher than in England. We need to look at the regional circumstances, which go some way to explaining why we in Northern Ireland have greater costs for energy and heating.

I know this is not the Minister’s responsibility, but to underline the issue the talk on the news this morning was about universal credit. I am not trying to be controversial or adversarial, but the news said that universal credit will cost everybody. It will add to fuel poverty issues, and I put that on the record too.

The Minister knows this, because she has been to my constituency and is a responsive Minister—I know she will be able to answer my questions—but we have had some good news with the natural gas network in my constituency, which will be extended to Ballygowan, Saintfield and Ballynahinch. That is good news, because that will help to bring costs down. We have the winter fuel allowance and the payments to alleviate fuel poverty, but they help only in the short term. We need to look at the long term too.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) spoke about park homes, and I want to put a marker down on that, too. Those aged between 55 and 80 are most likely to live in park homes, and that age group is most affected by fuel poverty. The Minister knows about that issue, but we need to address it. In Northern Ireland, we have looked at quality insulation, boiler systems and how heating systems can be upgraded. We have looked at all those things. In Northern Ireland we have some innovative and exciting projects to address fuel poverty. It is good to exchange those ideas across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I first want to thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas)—I know his area very well—for securing a debate on such a critical issue. It affects not only his constituents, but the constituents of all Members here today, including my constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill.

As I have previously stated in other parliamentary debates, statistics show that 40% of households in Scotland are considered to be living in fuel poverty. This, to me, is an unacceptable fact that sticks in one’s throat. Fuel poverty means more than simply not being able to keep the heating on. Critically, fuel poverty negatively impacts on the educational attainment and emotional well-being of children. It means that household income, which could otherwise be used to purchase healthy, nutritious food, goes to pay for high energy bills. The combination of mental and physical health problems, poor diet, emotional turmoil and diminished educational opportunity caused by fuel poverty is a recipe for condemning people to the cycle of poverty. In essence, it takes me back to an old Scottish Consumer Council report in 1994, “Poor and paying for it”, with 40% of households in Scotland face the consequences of fuel poverty every winter.

Fuel poverty is the result of a combination of, among other issues, low household income, fuel costs and the energy efficiency of homes. There are a number of practical ways in which those contributing factors can be addressed. For instance, lower household income can be tackled through a living wage for everyone. Recent policy developments implemented by this Conservative Government, such as increased benefit sanctions, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), put even more people at risk of fuel poverty because they hurt those in lower-income households. We must provide a fairer deal for hard-working individuals and families, and not force them to bear the cost of letting the producer interest come out on top.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) touched on the Big Six. We can no longer stand by while those companies make massive profits. That must surely end. The Competition and Markets Authority has in recent times found that energy consumers were being overcharged by £1.2 billion every year. Following its findings, I asked the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change what steps would be taken to amend policy in response to this high level of overpayment. To be honest, there has been very little response and a lack of robustness.

Finally, there is huge scope for the Government to assist in making homes more energy efficient. Unfortunately, this Conservative Government do not seem to think such programmes worth while. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently cut the budget for the Department of Energy and Climate Change by £70 million, £40 million of which will be cut from the budget for energy subsidies. This cut means that the green energy deal and the green deal home improvement fund, as well as solar power subsidies and feed-in tariffs, will be cut. The full impact of those cuts have yet to be seen. We can no longer stand by and allow this to happen. In a modern developed society, the fact that 40% of Scots face this dilemma every winter is a disgrace. Swift, meaningful action must be taken.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate. He referred to a debate that was conducted in my name in this room in November, when I raised issues and gave solutions to the Minister. I am still waiting for answers, but I hope to get those.

The UK Government’s own figures show that 4.5 million people in the UK are in fuel poverty—one in five households. As a highland MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has already described the situation for our constituents and has called for the sensitive reconstruction of a universal market for people. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that by 2020 an additional 100,000 children in Scotland will live in relative poverty after housing costs because of the UK Government’s welfare reforms—a matter that was raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—and this does not include the welfare changes announced in the summer Budget.

I want to ask three specific questions. The wholesale price of fuel is not being passed on to consumers. When prices rise for wholesalers, they rise for consumers; when prices fall for wholesalers, those falls are not passed on to the people, who do not see the drop in energy prices. The wholesale price of gas has fallen by 30% since last year and electricity by 8% in the same period. We are seeing suggestions of a reduction of 5.1% in gas prices from some companies, which is nowhere near enough. The Scottish Government’s energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, has written to the UK’s leading energy suppliers calling for a fair deal for Scottish energy consumers. Will the Minister commit to taking action now to make sure that cost savings are passed on to customers at the earliest opportunity and to the fullest extent?

Secondly, the majority of the highlands, in common with other areas, is not on the gas grid. LPG is 100% more expensive, heating oil is 50% more expensive than mains gas, and people in off-gas areas are paying on average £1,000 more per annum than the dual fuel national average, according to the Highland Council report. That is a disgrace. Will the Minister commit to extend Ofgem to cover off-grid supply?

Finally, on welfare cuts, we have heard about the charity Turn2us and the staggering statistics—I do not have time to run through them all now, but they are eye-watering. The Scottish Government have done what they can by using millions of pounds. Again, I cannot go through the individual measures, but they were referred to by the hon. Member for St Ives earlier. So my final question—I could ask a whole lot more—is: will the Minister commit to ensuring that everyone has the entitlement to live in a warm home that is affordable to heat?

Any discussion of fuel poverty must necessarily include calls for the Big Six energy companies to cut their gas and electricity prices. One or two have now started to do this, but it is too little too late. As my colleague has pointed out, the SNP Scottish Government energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, has written to the UK’s leading energy suppliers, calling for a fair deal for Scotland’s consumers. Wholesale costs savings must be passed on to customers at the earliest opportunity and to the fullest extent possible. No one can seriously believe that that is what has been happening to date. It is an absolute disgrace that some of the most vulnerable consumers, particularly those in remote areas without access to mains gas and those on pre-payment meters, should be paying more for energy costs.

The roll-out of smart meters is to be welcomed, but there must be concern about how the UK Government are planning to implement the programme, particularly when it comes to the costs of the roll-out, which will be borne by all energy consumers.

I apologise, but I have very little time.

In addition, some of the meters being installed are not of the highest specification, and there are fears that this will make it problematic for consumers to switch supplier in the future. Vulnerable customers must be given greater protection, as the SNP Scottish Government have been arguing. The programme must be delivered to the greatest possible number of Scottish consumers at the lowest possible cost, while enhancing the benefits to the most vulnerable in our society and those at risk of fuel poverty.

It is deeply disappointing that the Smith agreement fell well short of the Scottish Government’s proposal for joint governance of energy regulation, which would have allowed the Scottish Government to better protect consumers. But make no mistake: the new powers that Scotland has will be used in the strongest possible way to build a better energy market for Scottish consumers.

With £12 billion of further welfare cuts to be imposed, fuel poverty is set to become a deeper and wider problem across the entire UK. The charity Turn2us, which has been mentioned, found last year that one in two low-income households are struggling to afford their energy costs. The Scottish Government are doing what they can to put measures in place, with £104 million to mitigate the worst aspects of welfare reform in 2015-16, but there is still much to do. I hope the Minister will take cognisance of our particular concerns about fuel poverty in this wider context. I urge her to set out proposals that recognise that this is a health issue, a quality of life issue, and an issue that means that far too many of our most vulnerable, those living with disabilities, our children and our families are living in cold houses because they cannot afford both to eat and to heat their homes. I grew up in a home where we did not have the heating on because it cost too much money. I do not want any other child in the UK to grow up in such circumstances.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this extremely important debate.

Fuel poverty has wide-ranging impacts. As well as affecting people’s ability to keep their homes warm, it can affect their ability to feed their families and to manage other essential bills. It is also a long-standing health issue, in terms of both physical and mental health. The impact and emotional pressures caused by living in fuel poverty have been recognised for decades by researchers, medical professionals and policy makers alike. Turn2us has recently highlighted the fact that one in five people struggling with energy costs have experienced stress and other mental health problems, which compounds their difficulties.

From speaking to Denis Curran MBE, chairman of the Loaves and Fishes charity in my constituency, I have learned that some of the people who use his food bank specifically request food that does not need to be cooked. He is extremely concerned about the effects on children who are not receiving proper nutrition, and highlighted the plight of some desperate parents who are forced to use his service and ask for foods that require only hot water. He is concerned that further welfare cuts will invariably perpetuate the problem of people having to choose between the fundamentals of heating and eating. Denis told me:

“I have mothers walking three to four miles in the rain with children breaking their hearts in despair, asking for anything at all.”

The UK Government must act now to address poverty and energy prices. Wholesale gas and electricity costs have fallen, but the benefit does not appear to making its way to customers. I consider myself to be relatively bright, but I cannot understand some of the price comparisons, or even the price structures that the energy companies advertise. I am particularly concerned about my constituents who have prepayment meters and pay what appear to be disproportionate amounts. They must be supported with the installation of smart meters. I am also extremely concerned about the difficulties of my constituents who live in rural areas. They have no access to mains gas in the local area and must often choose bottled gas, oil or coal-based heating. Aside from the additional costs, their homes may be older and less insulated. All that contributes to physical health problems and illness in the elderly. There is a significant risk of mortality.

We must address the following issues promptly. We must look at renewable options; we must ensure clear pricing and competitive price comparisons; we must support people by changing their prepayment meters to smart meters; and we must ensure that those in rural areas are adequately assessed and resourced. Fundamentally, we must ensure that the most vulnerable in our society never have to choose between heating and eating.

Order. Members’ conduct has been exemplary; you have almost made up for your Chairman’s shortcomings. Mr McCaig, if you can confine your remarks to eight minutes, we will be back on track.

Thank you, Sir Roger. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing it. We have had an interesting discussion that has taken in both aspects of the issue. First, there is the issue of direct fuel poverty—how we insulate our homes and pay for our bills, and how we can make that better. Secondly, there is the broader issue of poverty—if people cannot afford to pay for anything, fuel poverty is clearly going to happen. I am always somewhat perplexed that we focus our poverty debates not on poverty itself but on specific manifestations of poverty. In this case it is fuel poverty; sometimes it is food poverty or child poverty. The issue is not the individual manifestations but poverty as a whole. Nevertheless, as this is a debate on fuel poverty, I will address my remarks accordingly.

The hon. Member for St Ives gave an excellent speech. The phrase that stood out to me was that it was time to “wage war on fuel poverty”. That is absolutely correct. I was struck by the comment by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that we need to learn from the different approaches in the UK’s different jurisdictions. I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for St Ives about the Scottish Government’s projects and how they could be replicated in England to deal with rural constituencies such as his. The situation in Scotland is by no means perfect, and we can learn from others. Debates such as this can help.

The hon. Member for St Ives also mentioned making fuel poverty a national infrastructure priority, which is what the Scottish Government have announced. That could bring jobs and support, along with benefits in terms of climate change, but above all it could ensure that people can live in homes that they can afford to heat. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) mentioned the lack of political will and how many of the attempts to tackle fuel poverty were being directed at reducing subsidies for renewable energy. That is completely and utterly the wrong way to go about it. The cost of the contributions to renewable energy projects is infinitesimal when compared with fuel poverty. Yes, we should be looking to bring down bills, but a far bigger issue is the failure to pass on savings from wholesale prices, as has been mentioned. We risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater and missing some of our climate change targets, which will not help those in need.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) both mentioned the scandal of prepayment meters and how those who are in greatest need face the highest bills. I can see no justification for that—I have heard several justifications for it, but none of them cut the mustard. It is unfair and iniquitous and it must stop. There are barriers to switching and it is a trap for people who can least afford to be trapped like that.

A number of Members talked about how fuel poverty is incredibly acute in rural areas. My hon. Friends the Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) mentioned the need for a universal market. In a previous debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey secured a commitment from the Minister that she would launch, around the end of last year, a public consultation on the most appropriate level of support for electricity distribution charges in the north of the country. It is clearly now the start of this year, so when will that consultation be coming?

One of fuel poverty’s hardest impacts is its effect on people’s health, education and lives as a whole. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) mentioned a GP talking about prescribing insulation—that really stands out as testament to the scale of the problem. We are tackling the symptoms of fuel poverty and paying millions to deal with its manifestations. Investment at source in the form of insulation is money that will pay itself back many, many times in improved health, education and social outcomes, as well as in reduced bills and less need to seek energy from elsewhere.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. He will be aware that the country that has reduced fuel poverty the most in the world over the past few years—indeed, it has also reduced carbon emissions—is the United States. That is because gas there is now one third of the price of our gas. Does he think that unconventional oil and gas in our country could make a big contribution to relieving the fuel poverty he is so concerned about?

I have had several conversations with people in the onshore and offshore oil and gas industries. Because of the nature of the European gas trading market, very few people seem to think that such options would reduce the costs here anywhere near as much as they have in the United States. They are also likely to be less cost-effective, so I do not believe that that is the answer to fuel poverty. It might be an answer to another question, but that is for another time.

Does my hon. Friend agree that district heating systems, such as the biomass system that has been installed in the West Whitlawburn housing co-operative in my constituency, can really help to alleviate fuel poverty? Such community-driven initiatives are to be truly commended.

I certainly do agree. That was one of the things on which I was going to close my speech. Most of the contributions to this debate have been on rural fuel poverty, and of course I accept that it can be more acute in rural areas because of the extra charges and costs. Nevertheless, I represent an urban constituency, and fuel poverty is an issue there as well. One way it has been addressed is through district heating, which is an important way of solving some of the problems. I often look with jealousy at our northern European neighbours, because they do things so much better: properly insulated homes, proper district heating schemes, and a social support network that means people can afford to pay their bills. The solution is not beyond the wit of this country, so it is time we got on with solving the problem.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate. Alas, this is the second time in my short career as a shadow Minister that I have had to speak about fuel poverty. That underlines just how serious a problem it is. Today’s discussion has again been informative and shed light on many pressing matters. Alas, it is not light that millions of our constituents need, but heat.

Let me go through some of the points that hon. Members made. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) spoke at great length about his frustration at the Government’s lack of action on energy efficiency. I, too, will touch on that issue shortly. Other Members talked about the fact that we have the worst fuel poverty in Europe with the exception of Estonia. I have been to Estonia, and I saw the 1950s Stalinist housing bocks that spread out across the country, so that is a sad fact if true.

Members spoke about prepayment meters and the fact that the very poorest—those least able to pay—are charged more for their energy. That is a perverse state of affairs, if ever there was one. In the highlands and islands of Scotland, some districts struggle with 71% fuel poverty, which is completely outrageous in the sixth-richest country in the world. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who sits on the all-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency, spoke about the trilemma of high energy costs, low incomes and poor energy efficiency. I was struck by the words of a doctor that she quoted, who said he wished he could prescribe insulation rather than medication. We must highlight that not investing in energy efficiency and not having proper fuel poverty strategies is a false economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) painted a moving picture of the grim reality that fuel poverty represents for millions of people across the country. The hon. Member for St Ives said that our nation has some of the oldest, leakiest housing stock in Europe. Fuel poverty saps people’s ability to work and study, and to get ahead in life. It affects people’s health and wellbeing. I am keen to hear the Minister address the question whether the Government will make affordable warm homes a basic human right that all people should be able to access.

The hon. Gentleman is making some compelling points. Does he agree that we need to include energy efficiency in infrastructure spending to deal with the issue of fuel poverty throughout our housing stock, whether in the social or private rented sector?

Yes, I agree. I went to see the new head of the National Infrastructure Commission, Lord Adonis, with Frontier Economics and E3G, which have been quoted. We asked him whether energy efficiency could be made a priority in the National Infrastructure Commission’s first tranche of spending. I will not say we were given short shrift—he was very polite—but I understand that he will not make the case for such spending in his recommendations. I think that is a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, the Treasury still refuse to see energy efficiency spending as infrastructure spending. Frontier Economics made a compelling case when it said that the characteristics of spending on energy efficiency are exactly the same as those of traditional infrastructure spending on, say, transport or broadband. We will press Lord Adonis on that issue, and I will happily keep the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) informed.

I have worked on fuel poverty and participated in debates on that issue, and I am struck by how easy it is to get sucked into the statistics and detail. Other Members made that point, too. Clearly, the detail is an essential to understanding not only the scale of the problem and the sheer depth of the Government’s failure, but the resources required to turn the problem around.

Before I get into the stats, let me remind hon. Members that behind every percentile, every missed target and figure and every set of depressingly high numbers there is a fellow human being. Perhaps they are one of the thousands of people expected to die this winter as a result of living in a cold home. Perhaps they are over 65—an age group in which one person is expected to die every seven minutes because of fuel poverty. I am sure someone much better at maths than I am will be able to work out statistically how many will have died over the course of this debate. Perhaps they are disabled, unable to get out of their home, and reduced to living in one or two rooms for the duration of the winter because they fear racking up excessively high fuel bills. Perhaps they are one of the 1.5 million children living in fuel poverty across the UK. Perhaps they are one of the Prime Minister’s strivers, and are working as hard as they can but are still struggling to heat their home. There is somebody in work in more than half of the 2.3 million households in fuel poverty.

That is the reality behind the statistics. Those are the people who, this winter, will pay a heavy price for the Government’s failure to tackle this issue meaningfully. I see that failure compounded day in, day out. I sit on the Energy Bill Committee, and throughout our proceedings the Government have routinely used fuel poverty as an excuse for inaction or, worse still, for slashing the UK’s renewables industry. They claim to care so much about poorer consumers, yet by attacking the two cheapest renewables—onshore wind and solar—they damage investor confidence, increase risk, and push up the price of renewable investment and, ultimately, our energy bills. At the same time, they are setting an incredible strike price for nuclear-generated electricity and are happy to heap those costs on to consumer energy bills.

One of the most cost-effective ways of meeting our climate change commitments and tackling fuel poverty is to increase energy efficiency, which has been mentioned so many times today, but it is being fundamentally undermined. Any serious attempt to tackle fuel poverty will require serious action to improve our housing stock. Poor-quality housing and fuel poverty are almost inseparable. The figures speak for themselves: 73% of households in fuel poverty live in properties with the lowest energy ratings—E, F or G. Only 2% live in properties with the highest energy ratings—A, B or C. The Government’s goal of ensuring a minimum energy-efficiency rating of band C by 2030 is woefully inadequate.

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying on renewables. Is his position on the speed and velocity with which we should go down the renewables route—ours is the fastest, certainly in terms of energy emissions targets, in Europe—the same as that of the Scottish National party, which regards its impact on bills as infinitesimal? Does he think that the Government and Opposition have a duty to match the speed of carbon reduction with cost, so that at the margin there are fewer energy deaths in the short term?

The Energy and Climate Change Committee is clear that the most cost-effective option for decarbonising our economy is set out in the carbon budgets. We have made it clear in the past few weeks that if we intend to decarbonise our economy, renewables will play a crucial part. Our problem with Government policy is that it is going backwards on renewables. Renewables will play a crucial part in ensuring that this country meets its climate change commitments and carbon budgets cost-effectively. We must have a balanced energy portfolio; the dash for gas and going all out for fracking is not the way forward. The Opposition are calling for a more balanced approach as the best way to achieve our commitments.

Between 2010 and 2013, only 70,000 fuel-poor households upgraded, leaving 95% still to be improved. As the hon. Member for St Ives said, at that rate the Department will miss its own target by 100 years. The Energy and Climate Change Committee estimates that investment of £1.2 billion to £1.8 billion per annum is needed to attain the Government’s fuel poverty strategy for England. The cheapest third of our approach to tackling our climate change commitments is the energy that we never use. Energy saved through efficiency is the cheapest. We talk about energy security, but energy that we never use is the securest. Funding for energy efficiency for the fuel-poor has been cut in real terms by a fifth, and the installation of energy efficiency measures has been cut by a third. As Members are aware, two new Government incentive schemes were introduced in 2013: the green deal and the energy company obligation. Two years later, the green deal has been stopped, and support for ECO is yet to be set beyond 2017 and no new funding is due to be announced until 2018.

Schemes aside, we come to the grim reality of this litany of failures. An estimated 43,900 excess winter deaths occurred last year in England and Wales—the highest number since 1999. Some 27% more people died in the winter months, compared with the non-winter months. It does not take a genius to understand that the situation will get worse the longer this Government refuse to have any semblance of a coherent fuel poverty strategy, and as long as growing inequality and poverty are at the heart of their economic policies.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) touched on that and we sometimes forget that fuel poverty is often just another term for old-fashioned poverty. Why? The vast majority of the 2.3 million households living in fuel poverty are also on low incomes. The link is inescapable, but rather than tackling it, the Government have opted to lower the bar and reduce their ambition. Dithering, inconsistency, U-turns and failure are the trademarks of this Government on this matter, and I look forward to hearing the Minister explain how they will tackle this most pressing issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing such an important debate, and on the conference that he is holding in his constituency this week focusing on what can be done to address the matter. Several hon. Members from across the House have asked me what they can do to help their constituents, and it is fantastic that so many are interested in seeing what they can do on the ground to help. I am thinking about providing some kind of support for Members who want to get involved locally.

Tackling fuel poverty is of utmost importance to the Government and energy security is the No. 1 priority. We have been clear that keeping the lights and heating on while meeting our decarbonisation targets at the lowest possible cost to consumers is a priority in this Parliament. All our policy work since we came into office last May has been resolutely focused on what more we can do to keep costs down for consumers and how technology can enable people to manage their own costs better. The human dimension matters enormously. Better insulation, better heating systems and better heating controls possibly sound a bit dry, but they can make a huge difference to people’s lives. Ultimately, this is about people living in warmer homes, paying lower bills and having more control over their own lives and comfort.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), raised the importance of focusing all our schemes on tackling fuel poverty. I can assure him and other hon. Members that we are reviewing all our policies to ensure that they prioritise the fuel-poor in every possible way. We have already made a difference. Since April 2010, Government policies have supported the insulation of 3.8 million lofts and 2.1 million cavities. In fact, the number of households in fuel poverty in England has fallen every year since 2010, but it remains a massive problem. Over 2.3 million households remain in fuel poverty in England alone, and our fuel poverty strategy must and does set stretching goals to continue to address the challenge.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned the particular problem for those with prepayment meters, and I agree that the challenges are huge. She will be aware that the Competition and Markets Authority is looking at how energy suppliers are behaving towards those with prepayment meters. Smart meters can make a big difference to the cost of a prepayment meter, and I urge all consumers to consider switching. They can seek help from their citizens advice bureau. In previous debate in the Chamber, I was able to highlight some of the cost savings that can be achieved even for those on prepayment meters with the support of the CAB.

The Conservative manifesto contained a promise to insulate 1 million homes in this Parliament but, as the Minister just said, 5 million homes were tackled in the previous Parliament, which was lower than in the Parliament before that. Can the Minister see why hon. Members of all parties present feel that the target does not represent a particularly ambitious Government objective?

I can assure all hon. Members that focusing on tackling fuel poverty is our priority.

From April 2017, a reformed domestic supplier obligation focused on energy efficiency measures will upgrade well over 200,000 homes a year and tackle the root cause of fuel poverty. Our extension of the warm home discount to 2020-21 at current levels of £320 million a year will help households at the greatest risk of fuel poverty with their energy bills. We will focus our efforts through both policies increasingly on households in fuel poverty and will be consulting within weeks on how we can do that.

The hon. Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell), for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and other Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Members have asked what the UK Government are doing, but they are all aware that fuel poverty is a devolved matter. I am sure that they will be raising their views with their own Parliaments as well as in this place.

It is important to address the point about a single national network charge, particularly for Scotland. We had a debate in this room only recently and I pointed out that Ofgem’s recent report shows that there would be winners and losers from a national network charge. Some 1.8 million households would face higher bills and 700,000 would see reductions.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She said at Christmas that no one should be penalised for where they live. Is it not fair, right and sensible to have a universal market? People should not be penalised for living where they do.

I have just addressed that point. Conceptually, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but he must realise that many would be worse off. It is important to note that while fuel poverty is a devolved issue, some of our schemes to help tackle fuel poverty—

I will not; this is not really about Scotland per se. Some of our schemes to tackle fuel poverty are GB-wide, including the energy company obligation, which has delivered energy efficiency measures throughout Great Britain. Some 83% of the ECO was delivered in England, 12% in Scotland and 5% in Wales, meaning that 35.3 households per 1,000 homes were treated in Scotland, which is the greatest share of the policy.

The issue of the high energy costs that many face was also rightly highlighted during the debate. For instance, households that are off the mains gas grid are more likely to face higher energy costs and are more than twice as likely to be in fuel poverty as households connected to mains gas. Off-gas grid households pay more for their energy and are more likely to live in a solid-walled property with a low energy efficiency rating. We have announced £25 million in funding through the central heating fund, which will be managed by local authorities, specifically to help support non-gas fuel-poor homes. We expect the fund to deliver up to 8,000 new central heating systems to low-income households in England.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) and the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the specific challenge of the energy efficiency of park homes. I can tell them that the ECO is now being offered in park homes. Solid-wall insulation has been provided for a few hundred, with more still to come.

As many have mentioned, support must be available to help people with their energy bills during winter. In the long term, the cheapest energy is that which is not being used, which is why energy efficiency is so important. On that point, I fully agree with the hon. Members for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) and for Norwich South (Clive Lewis). People also need help with their energy bills right now, which is why we are supporting 2 million customers a year with the warm home discount. We have increased the level of the discount, and over 1.4 million of the poorest pensioners received £140 off their electricity bill in 2014-15, with more than 1.3 million of them receiving the discount automatically. Some 600,000 low-income and vulnerable households, including families, will also benefit from £140 off their bill. Altogether, a total of £1.1 billion of direct assistance has been provided to low-income and fuel-poor households since the scheme began. The hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) mentioned the over-65s, and I can tell her that the winter fuel payment, which went to around 12.5 million older people in 9 million households last winter, will continue alongside the cold weather payment, which is paid to vulnerable people during periods of very cold weather.

I would like to emphasise the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives about the importance of local action. The Government also have several energy efficiency schemes that are delivering through local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point mentioned health-focused schemes, and I can tell her that we have provided £1 million of funding to local GPs to provide health-related referrals for local people.

I hope that hon. Members are persuaded that the Government are absolutely focused on tackling fuel poverty, on prioritising those in the greatest need and on doing everything that we possibly can in this Parliament to try to ensure not only that costs come down, but that people can choose how and when to heat themselves.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Would Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly, and may I again thank Members for their understanding this morning?