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Fuel Poverty

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2016

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the number of households currently in fuel poverty; and what action they intend to take to reduce that number.

My Lords, the latest official statistics show that there are 2.38 million households living in fuel poverty in England. We are reforming the energy company obligation to improve the energy efficiency of the households that most need support. Combined with the support from the warm home discount, almost £1 billion a year will be spent on tackling fuel poverty from 2018. We also propose to raise the standards of energy efficiency in the private rented sector.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know that the Prime Minister said:

“It’s just not right that two-thirds of energy customers are stuck on the most expensive tariffs”.

The Minister will also know that the figures she gave the House are a conservative estimate, because they do not include those who are in need of extra warmth because of old age or ill health. Could she elaborate on the Government’s intentions to achieve this improvement?

As the noble Baroness said, the Government are very focused on this issue. We are trying to improve the various schemes to focus them more on low-income and vulnerable people. We have a report from the Competition and Markets Authority looking at price, and at the key issue of pre-payment meters, which are extremely important for the poor and vulnerable—and which Lord Ezra, who used to ask questions on this subject, did so much to bring to everyone’s attention.

Does the Minister agree that it is not only the price of fuel and heating that are important, but how you use them? In my days as a member of the London Electricity Board, we encouraged a programme to be sent, particularly to elderly and vulnerable people, telling them how they could intensify the use of one particular room at times when they would be at serious risk of ill health if they did more. At least we sent out information that could be useful to people to protect them. Are the authorities that produce fuel still doing that? If not, can it be sent out by a health department or someone of that type?

The noble Baroness makes an important point about the need to get the information to the consumer, which I very much agree with. Public Health England recently estimated that cold homes cost the NHS £850 million a year—so we need to get the regimes right, and we also need to communicate that well, both through the energy providers and more generally.

My Lords, in this day and age, is it not an absolute disgrace that any household should live in fuel poverty?

It is certainly a problem, and it has been a problem for successive Administrations. We are trying to move forward: as has been said, the Prime Minister has commented on this area. We need to reach right across the piece: recently I met Christians Against Poverty and discussed its work to help the most vulnerable in society. As with so many issues, this is quite complex. We need to move forward in the competition area, and with meters, and we need to make sure that the schemes for improving energy efficiency—a long-term way of reducing energy bills—are focused on those who really need them.

My Lords, the most recent increase in inflation was attributed in part to increased fuel prices. What assessment have the Government made of the additional number of households which will have dropped into fuel poverty because of even further increases as a result of the Brexit-induced decline in sterling? In these circumstances, will the Government consider unfreezing the freeze they put on working-age benefits and tax credits so that the first consequences of Brexit do not fall disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable households?

The noble and learned Lord makes some interesting comments. It will be difficult for me to say yes today. However, I can say that we are continuing the winter fuel payments, which are very important to the 12 million pensioners who benefited from them last winter. We are also taking steps to make sure that this market works well so that affordable fuel is available. We are seeking an energy policy which is secure, clean and affordable for people.

My Lords, there is a particular problem with fuel poverty in rural areas, particularly remote rural areas. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to promote the use of renewable forms of heating, especially in off-grid areas in the countryside?

The right reverend Prelate is entirely right to say that there are special problems in rural areas. There has been a succession of schemes promoting renewables, some of which are particularly important in rural areas. I would like to talk to him further about the issues that he has encountered in this area so that we can make sure that, going forward, we focus on those as well.

My Lords, the UK energy system needs to digitise, just like TV and mobile phones. The building blocks for this revolution are smart meters, which create better opportunities for demand-side response measures to have a significant impact on fuel poverty. Will the Minister update the House on the introduction of the better markets Bill that could provide an effective start, such as a protective tariff for pre-payment customers? Are these measures a priority for the Government?

The rollout of smart meters and their proper use is very much a priority for us. Indeed, some of the changes that we will need for digitisation are already contained in the Digital Economy Bill, which is in the other place and will come here in due course.