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Electricity Supply (Vulnerable Customers)

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require Ofgem to amend the conditions of an electricity supply licence in relation to vulnerable customers; to require Ofgem to establish a fund for the purpose of rectifying dangerous electrical faults for vulnerable customers; to require energy supply companies to inform vulnerable customers about the services available to customers on the Priority Services Register; and for connected purposes.

I rise to propose a Bill that would address a critical issue in our energy sector. The Bill aims to require Ofgem to revise the terms of electricity supply licences with a much-needed focus on vulnerable customers. Specifically, it calls for the creation of a fund by Ofgem to rectify dangerous electrical faults affecting vulnerable customers. Additionally, it would mandate energy supply companies to inform vulnerable customers about their entitlements under the Priority Services Register and related matters.

As the UK moves towards achieving net zero emissions, our homes are undergoing a transformation in how they use energy. We are transitioning away from gas and increasingly adopting cleaner energy systems. Currently, 74% of homes rely on gas boilers for heating, but by 2035, up to 47% of homes could depend on electrically powered technologies such as heat pumps. The shift to electricity is expected to continue in the years ahead. In this transition, it is imperative that we prioritise the safety and well-being of our vulnerable citizens.

Last year in England alone, there were a staggering 2,695 fires caused by home electrical installations, an average of seven fires a day. Those incidents encompassed issues related to electrical distribution within homes and heating systems. Despite support from organisations such as Electrical Safety First, the Gas Safe Charity, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Home Improvement Council and National Energy Action, the Priority Services Register maintained by energy suppliers has fallen short in addressing critical electrical safety concerns for the most vulnerable in our society.

The PSR, administered by Ofgem, serves as a support system for vulnerable energy customers, offered voluntarily by suppliers. It provides assistance tailored to specific requirements. While the types of help can vary among suppliers, they typically include free gas safety checks for customers on means-tested benefits living with children under five years old, those receiving pensions and those who are disabled or chronically ill. That invaluable service has undoubtedly saved lives, and the Bill seeks to extend similar safeguards to the many households across the country using and depending on electricity.

While existing legislation in England, Scotland and Wales mandates electrical safety checks for vulnerable individuals living in the private rented sector, the recent Social Housing (Regulations) Act 2023 has extended these checks to those in the social rented sector, aligning England with Wales and Scotland. However, a significant portion of vulnerable people may still fall through the cracks.

Data from various housing surveys across the UK indicates that in 2021 as many as 10.8 million households could have qualified for the Priority Services Register, marking them as part of a vulnerable household. Furthermore, the elderly population, often eligible for the PSR, predominantly resides in the owner-occupied sector, which lacks mandatory requirements for essential electrical safety protections. The risk of electrical fire fatalities is notably higher for people aged 60 and above, particularly those living alone or in older housing with outdated electrics. This is significantly heightened if they have health conditions such as dementia or Parkinson’s.

Vulnerable people are more susceptible to electrical fires when they lack the financial means to pay for electrical safety checks or are physically unable to respond swiftly in case of a fire. Many of them may reside in substandard housing with outdated electrical systems, potentially in higher-density housing, further increasing the risk of fire spreading to neighbouring properties.

The Bill also addresses the pressing issue of fuel poverty among PSR-registered people. There is a significant overlap between vulnerable individuals on the PSR and those experiencing fuel poverty. The rising cost of living has hit many households hard, but it is incredibly challenging for older and vulnerable groups, particularly regarding energy costs. As of 2022, England alone had 3.26 million households in fuel poverty. In my constituency of Ilford South, 15% of households—more than 6,000 families—are grappling with fuel poverty. Shockingly, cold homes, linked to fuel poverty, contributed to 4,020 excess winter deaths in England and Wales last year: 45 lives lost each day during the winter months. For vulnerable people who already face the difficult choice between heating their homes and having enough to eat, affording electrical system checks is often impossible. That hidden danger compounds the already distressing issue of fuel poverty.

Although the PSR is a voluntary system for energy providers, it includes a requirement for free gas and carbon dioxide checks under Ofgem’s licensing conditions. None the less, concerns have been raised by organisations such as National Energy Action regarding the alarmingly low awareness of available assistance. It is crucial for energy suppliers not only to promote their services, but actively to enrol all eligible people on to the PSR, expanding the reach of these services across the board. In a November 2022 study of eligible PSR customers, Electrical Safety First found that around a quarter of respondents had never checked their electrical installations or were unsure if they had been checked. Some 85% of them supported the idea of the energy sector providing regular electrical checks as a requirement of the PSR, a viewpoint shared by both private and social housing landlords.

Of course, some of the checks may reveal severe and dangerous faults in the electrical systems. The Bill also addresses that concern. It would require energy suppliers, Ofgem and local authorities to have the necessary grant-making capabilities to address those issues. That would ensure that vulnerable people with electrical faults were afforded the same protections as those with gas safety issues.

We have a moral obligation to shield the most vulnerable members of our society from the devastating consequences of fuel poverty and electrical dangers. Today, as the Bill receives its First Reading, we take the first crucial step toward achieving this goal. It would guarantee that, as a statutory minimum, those most susceptible to fuel poverty during this era of rising living costs would receive enhanced electrical safety protections.

We cannot permit millions of people to make the heart-wrenching choice between food, safety, and living in peril. I urge the House to support my Bill today.

Question put and agreed to,

Ordered,

That Sam Tarry, Mike Amesbury, Andrew Western, Olivia Blake, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Karl Turner, Jim Shannon, Sarah Olney, Chris Loder, Derek Thomas, Sir Peter Bottomley and Alison Thewliss present the Bill.

Sam Tarry accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 365).