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Fuel Poverty

Volume 755: debated on Thursday 17 July 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the recently published statistical report on fuel poverty indicating a rising trend in 2014, they intend to expedite the announcement of their policy for dealing with the matter.

My Lords, the recent fuel poverty statistics show that, in fact, fuel poverty fell by nearly 5% in England in 2011-12, the latest year for which data are available. We welcome this modest fall, which was built on a fall in the two previous years. Overall, fuel poverty has fallen by nearly 9% since 2009, but we recognise that it is an extremely complex issue. It is a long-term issue requiring a long-term response.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her Answer. Bearing in mind that fuel poverty arises from low-income families living in badly insulated homes, of which there are more than 2 million in England, does she agree that dealing promptly and effectively with this problem would have two beneficial effects: first, to improve the living standards and health of those affected; and, secondly, through increased energy efficiency, to reduce import dependence?

My noble friend raises two key issues, and it is right that we address both of them. Our policy is to improve living standards for people in fuel-poor homes by trying to increase their energy efficiency. Our energy company obligation strikes at the heart of fuel poverty and is seeing nearly 400,000 low-income homes and vulnerable households helped since it started last March. The Green Deal, of course, is also a very important part of our policy approach.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us when the strategy will be announced, which is what my noble friend—whom I am delighted to see back in the House—asked this morning? Those of us who are associated with organisations such as National Energy Action are getting rather impatient at the length of time that this is taking to be produced. The statistics are now available. A number of schemes such as the Green Deal have been a failure, and the Warm Front scheme was withdrawn last year and nothing as yet is in its place. If we are having an improvement in the economy, surely those living in hard-to-heat homes, who are vulnerable and poor, should be among the first to enjoy the benefits of this apparent and claimed return to prosperity.

The noble Lord wants to know about the announcement. We will be announcing it shortly. However, we need to make sure that we have got it absolutely right. I would argue with the noble Lord’s assertion that the Green Deal has not delivered. It was started last year, and already more than 230,000 Green Deal assessments have been carried out. Therefore, I beg to differ with the noble Lord’s approach to the Green Deal, and it would be harmful to the industry that is trying very hard to address energy efficiency measures within homes if we have such a negative approach from the party opposite.

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord. However, since it does, and has been a long-term problem for us, we need to make sure that we have a proper, long-term, well thought-out solution. That is why we will announce a strategy that will address all those issues.

My Lords, those who keep a close eye on this area point out that issues of fuel poverty depend on which groups you look at. Clearly, in some groups this is a growing area. Indeed, they assert that there is a connection between the increase in fuel poverty of certain groups and the increase in the number of pre-paid meters that have been installed, partly because it is believed that they are the most expensive way to pay for fuel. In the light of that, can my noble friend tell us what consideration Her Majesty’s Government have given to promoting the five principles on the use of pre-paid meters which were agreed between Consumer Focus and the big six energy companies back in March 2011, to ensure consistency in their installation and use?

I am extremely grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his question, which enables me to reassure him and the House that we have looked very seriously at the pre-paid meter issue. We think that people on very low incomes must be among the greater beneficiaries of this policy, which is why we will make sure that through smart meters they are able to top up their meter as if they are topping up a mobile phone, so they have no chance of being cut off when they need their electricity the most.

My Lords, on 3 June the Times reported that profits from supplying electricity and gas to households had doubled in the past year. With profit margins from selling gas now over 10%, does the Minister not agree that we need to fix the broken energy market?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right, which is why the Government have referred the market to the CMA to look at how the energy markets are operating. We will await the outcome of its work, and in the mean time, Ofgem has the powers, as the noble Lord is aware, to take action against any supplier if it has any supported evidence that shows that they have behaved inappropriately.

My Lords, one of the great barriers to eliminating fuel poverty is that many people in that situation live in private rented accommodation and there is no incentive on landlords to make better the conditions and the cost of energy for their tenants. Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to remove that particular barrier and help those people, who suffer from some of the worst fuel poverty?

Of course, my noble friend raises another very important point. That is why we are looking at the private rented sector very carefully and trying to make it a priority that we ensure that we raise standards within that sector. We are working very closely with our colleagues at DCLG to ensure that we have the right approach. We are working towards a strategy that we hope will see some much more positive results from this sector. However, my noble friend is right to raise the issue, which we take very seriously.