Today is the day the media have been waiting for, the day Gordon will roll back fuel poverty. The studios have been booked, the front pages of friendly publications have been held. We await the “Warm Front”, the central heating offensive, the arrival of tank lagging and the time controlled on off switch. Elderly millionaires can now join less well off people over 70 in demanding free insulation.
I am amongst the first to agree that it is a nightmare for some people to pay the heating bill at current prices. Similarly they find the Council Tax bill, the rent or mortgage bill and the food bill a nightmare as well. Their problem is not fuel poverty, but poverty. There are still too many people in the UK with low incomes that do not allow them an easy life when it comes to balancing the bills for the necessities of modern living. All sensible politicians want to do more to tackle this.
I am also amongst the first to agree that anything we can do to help people cut their oil, gas and electricity bills the better. I have been leading a lonely campaign in the Commons – on those rare days when it is allowed to meet – to get the government to take its own advice. Where is the lagging, the draught exclusion, the timed controls, the willingness to switch off the lights when leaving the room, the ability to turn off the heating when an area is not in use in all those government offices? The government is the single biggest user of heat and light in the country. That would then save us some tax as well as helping the environment.
Fuel poverty is a strange boomerang designed by this government, probably to hurt the Conservatives, only to discover it has hurt them more. The idea is that anyone paying more than 10% of their income on fuel is fuel poor. Apparently this is independent of how much fuel they use or the price they have to pay. So someone who has a reasonable income can become fuel poor by being a bad manager of their home. Leave the lights on all night and keep the backdoor open with the heating on and you can become part of Gordon’s nightmare statistics quite quickly. Many more have become fuel poor because the oil, gas and electricity prices have shot up. As Labour is pledged to cut fuel poverty, they have to do something when fuel prices rise, only to discover they cannot do enough to prevent fuel poverty increasing.
On the basis that you are something poor if you have to spend more than 10% of your income on it, practically every one in our country is Tax poor, and most are also housing poor. Indeed, this government has taken a delight in plunging more and more people into Tax poverty, by hiking taxes and imposing new ones. It has also plunged more people deep into housing poverty, by allowing huge price rises in the housing market thanks to to its loose monetary policy and low interest rates in recent years.
I wonder if the government has understood the irony that the delay in announcing measures to tackle the rising energy bills faced by householders means the launch now takes place against the backdrop of a large fall in the price of oil? In the last two months the oil price has fallen by a third. It will take time for this to work through the system, but it does take some of the pressure off the related prices of heating oil, gas and coal.
Instead of dealing with “fuel” poverty the governemnt should be tackling poverty. Unfortunately, we are likely to see further rises in unemployment in the months ahead, when the best way of tackling poverty is to encourage more jobs.
At least the government is refusing so far to impose a windfall tax on the energy companies. If they are making excess profits we need to strengthen competition. One off levies would not work – the companies would try to pass them on to the long suffeirng customer. It would also make it more difficult to persuade them to build the new capacity this country so badly needs to keep the lights on.