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Fuel Poverty

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 26 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

In light of recent energy price rises, what steps they are taking to assist those pensioners and low-income families who are experiencing fuel poverty.

My Lords, eradicating fuel poverty is of key importance. Warm Front, with its equivalents in the devolved Administrations, is the Government's key programme to tackle the problem, providing free central heating and installation measures to qualifying households. The decent home standards and the energy efficiency commitment also help to improve the energy efficiency of vulnerable households. In addition, winter fuel payments, pension credit and tax credits have been introduced to improve the incomes of vulnerable households.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I should be interested to know why, despite all those efforts, the number of people having to choose between food and fuel has more than doubled in the past two years, according to a recent report.

My Lords, the fact is that the number of vulnerable households suffering fuel poverty in 2004 remained the same as in 2003, down from 4 million in 1996 to about 1 million in 2004. The noble Lord is correct to say that there has been an increase in the number of those suffering fuel poverty in the past year or so, largely because of the increase in energy prices. The figures will be published this summer, but the Government are urgently tackling the issue and will be referring to it in the forthcoming White Paper on energy.

My Lords, will the Minister indicate what percentage has been added to the bills of people in low-income households by the Government’s requirement to cover the country in windmills? Would it not be a good idea if it was clearly stated on consumers’ bills how much has been added as a result of the renewables obligation, which the Government have imposed?

My Lords, the expansion of renewables, which has doubled under this Government, is primarily to tackle climate change, and will be of benefit to the entire country and will help to save the future of our planet. It is true that the renewables obligation, to which the noble Lord refers, will cost something like £1 billion by 2010, but it will also support the emergence of further renewables technology and the renewables industry, which will be of great benefit to the country.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that substantial amounts were added, and are still being added, to every bill as a result of the nuclear legacy? Will he also inform the House how long it will take under the current Warm Front policy to insulate the homes of all those—namely, 750,000 people in the most severe need—who qualify even for the British Gas essentials programme?

My Lords, there is a large job of work to be done, but the Warm Front scheme has already benefited 1.4 million households in the country since 2000. Obviously, more households require support, which they will get. The Government have put something like £800 million into the scheme, which will run until 2008. Energy suppliers, as the noble Baroness said, are making their own initiatives and introducing social tariffs to help vulnerable people, and those are to be welcomed.

My Lords, what is the point of setting targets for the gas and electricity suppliers to help families in fuel poverty if they are denied the information to know who they are?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a valid point. We are working on sharing data, but we must bear in mind issues such as the Data Protection Act and the protection of individuals’ information. We are, however, working on sharing data between government departments to ensure that we target better those who need support. We are working actively to achieve that.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are other needy groups besides pensioners who are particularly hard hit by energy price rises? The disabled, for example, suffer disproportionately from fuel poverty. I have been made aware of young, disabled people who need to heat their home for as much as 20 hours a day. Does the Minister share my concern that the minimum age limit for the winter fuel allowance denies help to many who need it most, and will he undertake to look into this situation and consider what more could be done to help this particularly vulnerable group?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that disabled people are a vulnerable group to whom we wish to increase our support. Winter fuel payments, as he mentioned, are paid only to those aged 60 or over. We are, however, giving support to disabled people to assist with fuel poverty. That is why we have the disability living allowance and the attendance allowance, which are included in the eligibility criteria for the Warm Front scheme that I mentioned. The installation of central heating and insulation is available to disabled people under the scheme, which we want to expand.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the deep concern of organisations such as Save the Children about the effect of fuel poverty on very low-income families? Is he considering consulting extensively Save the Children and other organisations to see exactly what their recommendation is?

My Lords, we consult non-governmental organisations all the time on these issues and specifically on tackling child poverty. The target is to eradicate child poverty by 2020. It is one of the most ambitious targets that any Government have set for themselves. We have already made the biggest improvement of any country in the European Union, and, since 1997, 600,000 fewer children have been living in poverty under this Government.

My Lords, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his recent Budget an investment of £7.5 million to fund projects to identify households in fuel poverty and to give them “the right coordinated help”. He suggested that that would target 300,000 of the most vulnerable households and lift them out of fuel poverty. What is “the right coordinated help”, at £25 a house, to work this miracle?

My Lords, it is important, in addition to the national Warm Front scheme, to tackle deprivation in local communities, an idea which was behind a number of Warm Zone areas identified for special help. As the noble Lord said, the Chancellor announced in his 2006 Pre-Budget Statement a further £7.5 million to improve the effectiveness of Warm Front and the Energy Efficiency Commitment. It is a successful programme which is making a real achievement in improving fuel poverty issues in the areas identified.