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Will the Secretary of State confirm that most of the money has gone not into the minimum income guarantee or the basic pension, but into complicated and indiscriminate special payments such as the winter fuel payment? Does he not realise that pensioners find these allowances patronising and intrusive? They would far rather have that money as part of their guaranteed weekly income, and that is what we offer them.[ Official Report, 9 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 457.]
The situation in Scotland is concerning. I have already mentioned the fact that the party that claims to stand up for Scotland is conspicuous in its absence here today. Rural fuel poverty is a particular issue in Scotland, and I am concerned that fuel poverty continues to grow. A recent Government review concluded that fuel poverty is more prevalent in Scotland than in England, that fuel poverty is likely to increase further, and that the energy efficiency measures currently in place are not enough. Most damaging of all, it stated that existing fuel poverty programmes in Scotland are not focused on the fuel poor. Surely the SNP-led Scottish Executive have to accept some responsibility for the situation
I am pleased that the Government are reviewing their policies, and I welcome the fact that the review will examine all three causes of fuel povertyprices, energy efficiency and incomewhich I have discussed today. I am pleased that the Government are not dragging their feet and are still committed to their 2016 targets. This Bill is designed to set the Government up to fail, rather than to achieve its stated goal. Co-operating with the Governments plans would be a much better way for people to achieve their goals, if they wanted to. Uncosted and unrealistic, this Bill, sadly, has to fail.
Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): May I begin by apologising for not being able to be here earlier today? I had a surgery in my constituency at the Golden Lane campus, a new school that was opened yesterday by Princess Anne.
Some of the people who came to see me at my surgery wanted to talk about this particularly important issue. I do not know whether one woman who cameshe lives at Quaker courtwould fall under the definition of being in fuel poverty; certainly, she feels that she does. Hers is a very good example of how complex the fuel poverty issue can be. Her problem is that she is in a three-bedroomed flat in Quaker court, shares a bed with her four-year-old son, has two other sons in another bedroom and a teenager in the third bedroom, and their water-heating system is not big enough for them all to have a shower. She contacted the energy companies and asked for some assistance, and was told that if she wanted to get a new combi boiler, it would cost £3,000. She simply does not have the money to ensure that she has enough hot water to keep her children clean.
Of course, an associated problem is that that persons household is simply too large for the flat into which she has been put. As some in the House may know, Quaker court overlooks the site of what used to be a school, but which unfortunately my local authority recently sold off. Instead of its building larger homes for people such as her, there will be yet more student accommodation.
This person, this victim of fuel poverty, seemed to me a very good example of how the causes of fuel poverty can be very complex and varied. Fuel poverty is an issue of huge importance to my constituents, particularly after the very difficult winter that we have all been through in the south of England. Many of them have
been contacting me about fuel poverty andagain as a result of the weatherabout the huge amount of flooding that has occurred and the dampness of flats.
All of us agree that people should not continue to suffer from fuel poverty in this day and age. I feel very strongly about this issue. When I was a child, we lived in a very large house. My mother was on benefits and we had a great shed next door where we used to keep our coaluntil it ran out. However, we did have 2 ft of coal dust, and my mother used to try to keep the fire going with it. She was always worried that we would run out of coal dust before the winter finished. We used to keep our coats on in the house, and ice used to form on the inside of the windows. In the end, our problem was solved for us: the bailiffs turned up and chucked us out, so we went into social housinga smaller house that, thankfully, had a better heating system. The issue of children in fuel poverty is one that I feel very strongly about.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) pointed out, this debate is about not just fuel poverty, but what we are going to do about it. It is not an issue on which it is of any assistance to any of my constituents for us simply to grandstand. We need to know what it is that we can actually do, and we need to be involved in real politics to make real change for people and to ask what the best ways are of tackling fuel poverty.
The common way of approaching the problem is to think of the three forces that drive it: low incomes, high prices and poor energy efficiency. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) talked about social housing as a possible solution to the problem in itself, but I am afraid that my experience shows that that is not necessarily the case. A couple of women came to see me who are in social housing in 67 Graham streetin new build built by the Notting Hill Housing Trust. I wrote to the trust asking why they had such huge bills, and was told that the properties passed the decent homes test and other tests relating to the thermal comfort criteria within the decent homes standard.
Nevertheless, the women came to speak to me about their huge bills and those of their neighbours. For example, a woman in a one-bedroomed flat is paying £40 a week for her heating. Another woman in a four-bedroomed flat is paying £50 a week for her heating. She says that she has turned off her heating, yet her weekly electricity bill is still £50. People in those flats are switching off their heating so that they are able to pay their electricity bills. The problem with the heating in those flats is that they have what is called a ceiling heater. The heat hits the top of the flats but does not percolate down to the people at the bottom.
We have switched the heating off. We only use the cooker.
but were not using the heater.
Cant heat up the flat. Only do it on Saturdays.
In a one-bedroomed flat where only one heater is on at a time, the weekly electricity bill is £55 a week. In other one-bedroomed flats, people are paying £25 or £30 a week for electricity but, again, that does not include heating. It seems that despite the snow and the temperatures over the past winter, people in an entire block have not been switching on their heating, yet they continue to get huge bills.
A household in fuel poverty is a household that would need to spend at least 10 per cent of its disposable income on all fuel use in order to achieve a temperature of 21ºC.
Simon Hughes: To clarify the point that I made earlier, I was extolling the virtues of council housing, rather than social housingthat is, housing associationswhich often does not achieve the good standards that good council housing has achieved.
Emily Thornberry: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Let me refer him to the case of another individual who contacted me. He is a leaseholder, and I know that the issue is close to the hon. Gentlemans heart. That gentleman bought his council accommodation believing that that was the best thing to do in the 1980s and thought that it would be a way of investing for the future.
The decent homes standard and its implementation is one of the great achievements of this Government and one that I support wholeheartedly, but what disturbs me hugely is that when residents of a block are told that it is to be put into the decent home standard, it is a matter of dread for a substantial minority living in that block because they are so worried about the major works bills.
The gentleman contacted me to make it clear that he could not afford to pay the bills that the council had sent out for doing up the block, and went into some detail about the costs that he had to meet in order to survive. The paragraph relevant to todays debate is this:
I become overdrawn practically every month due to all the payments that I have to make. The pension credit and disability living allowance is just not enough for a couple to survive on when all these payments are due. The DWP gave a winter heating allowance of £200, this was much appreciated but when you consider that the total for our gas and electricity bill for the final quarter of the year was in excess of £360, the allowance doesnt actually cover it. Surely the government need to make sure the allowance matches the huge price hike put forward by companies such as British Gas.
People have bought their council flats but cannot afford to meet the cost of a major works programme. On top of that, their heating costs too muchmuch more than it ought to, and much more than their incomes. That is why, for all of us, particularly for those of us who represent poor and deprived communities, it is such a major issue. We are extremely concerned about what will happen. With climate change and the unpredictability of the weather, constituencies such as mine in the south of England will be hit by colder weather than we have ever experienced before.
We have to ensure that our homes are sound and warm, and that we address the problem of fuel poverty. The question is whether this private Members Bill is a practical way to address that problem. I have a number of concerns about the Bill. I have been able to hear some of the debate, and I found it informative. I am concerned about some of the questions raised this morning, but I welcome the fact that the Government are reviewing the issue of fuel poverty and I will look to see what they can do to ensure that we address the problem properly. The ladies from 67 Graham street, the leaseholder whom I mentioned and the woman who came to see me in my surgery today all depend on the Government to address the problem properly and find a solution. I suspect, however, that the solution cannot be found in the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who made some telling points in an excellent speech. She always has her constituents welfare very much at heart, and I appreciate her coming here following her surgery today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on his perseverance, on his success in gaining a place in the ballot and on how he has presented his Bill. I am grateful to him for acknowledging the work being done by the Government and for allowing us to have this important debate.
I have always valued private Members Bills, not least because I have successfully piloted two such Bills of my own, under Conservative and Labour Governments. I also pay tribute to Ron Bailey, with whom I worked closely on my Bills, although he has not been so engaged with us on this one. Both my Bills were environmental Bills and both presented the Governments with challenges. But the secret of a private Members Bills success is the choice of something additional to what the Government are already doing and something that can be complementary to an established policy direction.
Unhappily, this Bill is designed in such a way as to cut across everything that the Government have been doing on fuel poverty and, even more importantly, across the detailed work being done on the strategy in the light of changing circumstances. It also cuts across the consultations already in the public domain on future Government policies on heat saving and energy saving in this country.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome suggested that what he was presenting was compatible with our plans, but I am sorry to say that it is certainly not. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) suggested that the Bill was just aspirational or permissive. It is neither.
Mr. Heath: This is a crucial part of the argument between us. The Minister says that the Bill is incompatible with her plans. I should like her to say why. Presumably, she intends to have a strategy at some point. If so, will she tell me the time scale that she envisages for getting it in place, so that I can amend my Bill to make it compatible with her plans? As I have said all along, I am keen to work with the Government on this issue, not against them.
Joan Ruddock: I appreciate the hon. Gentlemans willingness to work with the Government. Unfortunately, I think that he has been poorly advised. As I will go on to say, the point central to his Bill and how it is framed, as he acknowledged today, is that there is an absolute duty. The other issues are to do with the consultations being conducted, which cannot be prejudged in respect of our adopting a new and different fuel poverty strategy from that which exists under current legislation.
Fuel poverty and energy efficiency are huge and complex subjects of which we now have considerable experience. When I became a Minister at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, I was delighted to have the portfolio because it is an important part of the Governments progressive agenda for people and the environment. It quickly became apparent that the huge rises in fuel prices had driven the achieving of our targets off course.
I share the concern of all those both inside and outside the House for people whose lives are blighted by living in the cold. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said so passionately in his opening remarks, it cannot be right. I share the genuine sentiments expressed by Members on both Opposition Benches and I thank them for their compliments. It is because we are deeply concerned that we have had, and continue to have, a raft of measures in place and have increased funding in the current spending round.
Understandably, however, non-governmental organisations with an interest in the field have spoken up on behalf of their constituents. That is their job and we respect them for it, but the Government have to take decisions for the whole country and the whole economy. That is why when the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 came into force, it set targets that the Government had to reach
as far as reasonably practicable.
The Bill would remove that consideration from the duty on Government and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for so clearly setting out why the Bill would not work. Under existing legislation, a person is defined as living in fuel poverty if they are a member of a household living on a lower income and in a home that cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost. The Governments fuel poverty strategy sets out that being fuel poor means spending more than 10 per cent. of income on fuel to maintain a satisfactory heating regime, generally defined as 21° C in the living room and 18° C in the bedroom.
Fuel poverty is not just about income, however; it is a complex interaction between fuel costs, household income and household energy efficiency. All three factors are variable, in that households can go into and out of fuel poverty, as the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) effectively outlined in his speech. A person on a low income with an unclaimed benefit entitlement can be taken out of fuel poverty simply by making a successful claim and, as he suggested, a person who is not in fuel poverty could become so on the loss of their job.
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