Skip to main content

Shortages: Protection for the Vulnerable

Volume 815: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect the most vulnerable in the event of shortages of (1) energy, and (2) other necessities.

My Lords, there is no shortage of energy, and the Government have taken action to increase the supply of HGV drivers. The supply of fuel and food is secure. Protecting vulnerable consumers is our top priority, which is why our energy price cap will remain in place. We are supporting vulnerable and low-income households through initiatives such as the £500 million household support fund, the warm home discount, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments.

My Lords, I do not agree with the Minister that everything has been fine following the shocks that we have suffered from Covid and Brexit over the past few months, and neither would the underprivileged in our society. Are the Government doing some contingency planning, as we have really big threats coming, possibly with climate change, to protect the most underprivileged and deprived in society to ensure that they are looked after? People are talking in the press about forms of rationing. We could look for schemes through which we could protect them more than we do at the moment. Similarly, we need to get out and make certain that people who are working on the front line are given all the protection they need—including petrol—so that they can get to work and so on. That has certainly not been happening in the past few weeks.

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that the poorest and most vulnerable are always at the heart of our policies in this area—we always seek to protect them. It is, however, important to emphasise that there is no shortage of essential items, and we have taken action to ensure that supply chains remain robust.

My Lords, one of the other necessities mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, is food. Nationally and globally, we waste a third of all food. When 1.7 million children, between September 2020 and February 2021, were living in food poverty along with their families, surely there must be a better way. This week, the Earthshot Prize celebrated Milan’s citywide food-waste policy, which saves 260,000 meals-worth a year. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to encourage and support the better local collection and distribution of food waste in the UK more effectively?

The right reverend Prelate makes a good point. Everybody across all levels of government—national and local—want to do all they can to minimise food waste. Of course, we are always looking for additional ways to protect the most vulnerable.

My Lords, shortages of energy and food have driven up the cost of basic necessities. Does the Minister agree that the poorest pensioners are likely to struggle most, as they spend so much of their budget on these items? What are the Government doing to increase take-up of pension credit, as 40% of pensioners who are entitled do not claim it and therefore do not get access to the warm home discounts, cold weather payments and so on that this benefit could provide for them? With 40% of pensioners not receiving that benefit, what will the Government propose to improve the situation?

My Lords, nearly 1.5 million people across Great Britain do receive pension credit, but I agree with my noble friend that many are not claiming what they are entitled to. We are working constantly to increase awareness of pension credit; we recently joined forces with Age UK and various celebrities to try to encourage pensioners to check their eligibility for access to this important benefit.

My Lords, could we not provide statutory protection of a national scheme for individuals acting as service providers and the needy, whereby individuals—perhaps even neighbours —acting as volunteer service providers, could take on responsibility for arranging appointments and performing other designated life tasks? This would all be under clearly defined model arrangements, thereby relieving pressure on statutory providers. There is an army of volunteers out there, but many are wary of liability. A national scheme could complement existing charity arrangements.

The noble Lord is right. During the pandemic, we saw the massive difference that volunteers can make to people’s lives. Our role in government in volunteering is as a steward, enabling a further unlocking of the voluntary sector. We are always aiming to simplify the routes into volunteering to help match up supply and demand.

My Lords, in the light of the upsurge of food, energy and living costs looming this winter, does the Minister agree that the best way in which to support the most vulnerable people is to restore the £20 uplift and reverse the 5% cut to 4.4 million families? If not, what special measures will be on offer, particularly to people with disabilities, who have suffered most disproportionately during the pandemic, through loss of income and support, increasing care charges, poor access to essential services and generally feeling forgotten and not cared about? How will they be protected from cold and hunger in the coming months?

I know that we have debated these matters a lot in the House recently, and I know that the noble Baroness will be aware that the uplift to universal credit was only ever meant to be temporary. I outlined earlier some of the many schemes that we have on offer to pensioners and those living in fuel poverty to help them get through this crisis.

In the energy market, when consumers were encouraged to switch suppliers to find the best deal, it was to encourage competition and innovation among utility companies. Are the Government still confident that the supplier of last resort mechanism is the correct outcome for suppliers and consumers in the process in a competitive energy market?

The answer to the noble Lord is yes. A number of energy companies have, sadly, gone to the wall, but the supplier of last resort scheme has so far been successful in transferring to other providers. We have other administrative regimes in place should they be necessary but, so far, the SoLR process has worked well.

My Lords, the shortage of energy is going to be felt by those households which simply cannot afford the soaring energy prices. Given the forecast that gas prices are going to go up another 30% next year on top of the already very high levels, are the Government considering further measures to alleviate the intense hardship that this will cause for millions of families? This could be done, if not by removing VAT, which may be difficult, by vastly expanding the warm homes discount or easing or temporarily suspending some of the many green levies that bump up our energy bills. Is some further action being contemplated?

Of course, my noble friend will be aware that domestic fuel, such as gas and electricity, is already subject to a reduced rate of 5% of VAT. He will understand, I am sure, that I cannot comment on any speculation about any other changes that might happen in the Budget, beyond saying that protecting consumers is our top priority, which is why the energy price cap will remain in place. I announced earlier the other levels of support that we have in place.

My Lords, millions are already made vulnerable by poverty—too often deep poverty—and food insecurity. The pandemic has underlined the need for a decent social security system that protects them in difficult times. I repeat the question, because the answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, was so inadequate: will the Government therefore rethink their decision to end the £20 universal credit uplift as a first step towards ensuring that social security benefits are adequate to meet needs? The proposed local authority household support fund that the Minister mentioned is not a solution that provides security for those in vulnerable circumstances.

I think we have a difference of opinion here. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, the universal credit uplift was only ever meant to be temporary. The opposition parties do not accept that, but that was the case. We recognise that some people continue to need extra support, which is why we introduced the £500 million household support fund.

I refer to my position as president of National Energy Action. Does my noble friend share my concern that there are currently 4 million people in fuel poverty? Will he use his good offices to ensure that everyone has a warm home this Christmas?

Of course, we are constantly looking at the various schemes we have. We announced £850 million for the home upgrade grant yesterday, which will go precisely to those my noble friend is concerned about—the fuel-poor living in rural areas.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I chaired a commission on vulnerable consumers of energy, two or three years ago. The industry has taken on some of the recommendations; Ofgem and the Government have taken on rather fewer. Does the Minister not recognise that the way Ofgem has licensed over 100 new competitors without any requirement that they look after vulnerable consumers has caused distress and the kind of fuel poverty that has already been raised? Over 100 licences have been given. Competition benefits consumers, but it has to be accompanied by resilience and reliability. Will the Government and Ofgem look at this again?

Of course, we always keep these matters under review, but to a certain extent the noble Lord answered his own question: competition is good for the consumer, and the extent and array of competition in the energy market has produced lower prices for many consumers. Obviously, in a competitive market, particularly with the recent spikes, some companies will go to the wall, but there are protections in place for those consumers under the follow-up process that I talked about with the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. But of course we always keep these matters under review.