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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

How do you Solve a Problem like Fuel Poverty?

23rd October 2014

Energy and Climate Change Select Committee Member, John Robertson MP, makes the case for a 'Fuel Poverty Champion' to co-ordinate activities across Government aimed at helping the fuel poor

The last conference season before the General Election brings with it a flurry of policies, as parties position themselves for the months to come. Top lines spell out top priorities and we see the first glimpses of Governments post-May 2015.

Fuel poverty is an issue which I saw the Labour Party aim to address, with repeats of an energy price freeze and reorganisation of the market, as well as investment into energy efficiency. But while these are important policies, and ones which will make a true difference to those facing a cost of living crisis, the issue of fuel poverty needs to take centre stage.

Over two million households are now spending more than 10 per cent of their income on fuel for their home, and 25% say they are living in “unacceptably cold homes”. They have to choose between heating and eating. It is a scandal that in 2014 we have over 30,000 excess winter deaths in England and Wales alone as a result of the cold.

We need to show our constituents that we are committed to making sure they can afford to heat their homes and their dinners. I propose we introduce a new position within Government to take on this challenge: a Fuel Poverty Champion.

This non-ministerial role would take responsibility for coordinating all activities aimed at helping the fuel poor, and would sit in on Energy, Business, and Work and Pensions decisions to make sure fuel poverty takes centre stage.

Many policies in energy cross the boundaries between departments; this Government has even combined the post of Energy and Business Minister. The next Labour Government would see these two areas intertwined even further, with its investigation and reorganisation of the energy market.

The Department for Work and Pensions are responsible for administering Cold Weather Payments and Winter FuelAllowance. They are benefits with a clear aim to reduce fuel poverty.

While all these policies work in isolation, we could improve their impact by having one person in charge of leading a coordinated strategy towards fuel poverty.

This person could make sure policies do not overlap in their impact, over departments or devolved administrations. He or she could liaise between ministers to ensure that policies complement rather than replicate each other.

The Fuel Poverty Champion could save money through streamlining policy in this way.

Crucially, he or she would put fuel poverty at the very centre of our work in Government. Through keeping the focus on tackling this issue, we can hopefully make a good step towards eradicating this scandal once and for all.

In policy negotiations, he or she would stand up for the fuel poor. But there are current laws which they could improve as well.

There is not enough information about available benefits for my constituents and others. It is unrealistic to expect a shivering lady in her Glasgow tenement block to go on the internet and research what is there. Government should be doing more to get this information directly to those who need it most.

Cold weather payments are a lifesaver for those who have faced perishing temperatures for a week or more. But as they are automatically paid when the forecast is an average of 0°C for a period of seven days, it means they are very rarely paid out. In 2013, my constituency faced lows of -3°C, -4°C and even -8°C in just one week, but the payments simply did not kick in. For every one degree drop in average temperatures, there are around 8,000 extra deaths. We urgently need to look at how these payments are administered.

By 2015, the Winter Fuel Payment will not have increased in four years, while energy bills have increased by around 40%. Its effectiveness diminishes with every price rise and a Fuel Poverty Champion would analyse whether its value could be tied to the price of energy bills or inflation.

Everybody worries about being cold and not being able to afford to put the heating on. So we should go into the next election with a real strategy, and a dynamic person, to tackle fuel poverty.

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