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Fuel Poverty

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What are their plans to deal with fuel poverty in the light of rising energy prices.

My Lords, the Government have a package of measures to support households vulnerable to fuel poverty. Spend on energy efficiency measures for those on low incomes for the period 2008 to 2011 will be in excess of £2.3 billion. This is in addition to the winter fuel payments payable to all pensioners. Energy companies have recently increased the support that they provide to vulnerable customers, with overall funding of £56 million this winter.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he accept that fuel poverty—where more than 10 per cent of total income is spent on heating—which fell to 2 million in 2004, has now risen to more than 4.5 million? That represents nearly 20 per cent of all households in Britain. Can he confirm that it is still the Government’s intention to eliminate such poverty in the most vulnerable groups by 2010, eradicating it altogether by 2016-18? In those circumstances, in addition to the measures that he has already mentioned, will the Government contemplate taking further measures, such as adding to the Warm Front funding?

My Lords, we have achieved substantial reductions in fuel poverty since 1996, with more than 4 million households removed from fuel poverty, although the noble Lord is right that in the past few years the numbers have begun to go up again. The reason for that is largely the increase in energy prices. We stand by our commitments with regard to 2010 to 2016 and I tell the House openly that, although this is a tall order, we will do our very best to ensure that those targets are reached. As far as additional action is concerned, we are in ongoing dialogue with suppliers and Ofgem. We would like to see more progress and we do not rule out the need for legislation in the future on social tariffs. However, legislation may not be the answer here.

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s encouraging declaration on social tariffs. However, the Government, like many of the energy companies, have been the beneficiary of the increase in value added tax revenues, because the price has gone up, the tax take has increased accordingly and the Government therefore have more money to spend on helping the poor. Under these circumstances, can he give an assurance that in the Budget next week proper weight will be given to the needs of the fuel poor in our country?

My Lords, a group that suffers very much from cold weather is the disabled. Is there a case for the Government to increase the range of people who get the winter fuel payment to cover those who are in receipt of a full disability allowance? In that way, the numbers would be limited. These people need to be kept warm perhaps more than most other people who are under 60.

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness’s point. As I understand it, there are no plans to extend winter fuel payments to that group of people, but of course I shall take back her suggestion. Winter fuel payments have been a terrific improvement for everyone over 60 for many years.

My Lords, will the Government make payments to those trapped in fuel poverty according to the climate of the area in which they live?

My Lords, as we have heard, the latest estimate has suggested that the number of households in fuel poverty is now 4.5 million, which is the highest since Labour came to power. While we understand that the noble Lord, Lord Jones, has an enthusiasm for selling Britain, is it not time that he stayed home to concentrate on the wretched poor in this country?

My Lords, if that question had been asked from almost anywhere else in the House, I would have taken it seriously. What the noble Baroness’s Government did for fuel poverty can be written on the back of a postage stamp. We have done a huge amount. We have been frank with the House; the numbers have gone up in recent years because of a rise in energy prices. However, the number of people who are now helped but were never helped when the noble Baroness’s Government were in power is huge.

My Lords, on Monday we had a Question about energy efficient housing and a supplementary question was asked about upgrading inefficient boilers. As many of those boilers will be in the homes of elderly people, what assistance is available to those people to improve their boilers?

My Lords, I do not have the details in front of me. There are clearly a lot of methods available to help people in all categories, including the category that the noble Baroness talks of. I shall write to her with a complete answer.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the CBI’s recent report, Climate Change: Everyone’s Business, which concluded that more energy efficient buildings could make the biggest single contribution to reducing carbon emissions by 2030. To achieve this, 15 million homes need better insulation. I did not hear the Minister respond to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, about Warm Front payments. Will the Government commit to reversing the recent cut in the Warm Front budget and possibly even, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, suggested, to extending it?

My Lords, the spend for the next three years on energy efficiency measures to enable homes to be kept warm more cheaply will be in excess of £2.3 billion, which is £680 million more than in the previous spending period. The Warm Front programme is, as the noble Lord rightly says, being reduced from £869 million to £810 million, but £1.5 billion will be spent in the next three years by suppliers under the carbon emissions reduction target. The overall increase is £680 million over the next three years.

My Lords, the Minister has said in detail how much the Government have spent on trying to help people to keep their homes warm, but does he recognise that, although we are one of the richest nations, we have the greatest number of excess winter deaths in the civilised world? I hear what he says about talking to his friends in another place and to the Minister, but should this not be higher on the Government’s agenda, particularly given rising fuel prices and where we stand as a rich nation?

My Lords, I can tell the noble Baroness that this is very high on the Government’s agenda and has been since we came into office in 1997. The number of people who die, tragically, during cold periods in the winter because they cannot heat their own homes is very much lower than it used to be, but of course there is room for improvement.