I congratulate Mr Dodds on choosing this subject. With winter fast approaching, this is an issue that will clearly be on many of our constituents’ minds. Although it has been unseasonably warm in my part of Scotland, we must realise that the winter is still ahead of us and we face the challenge of yet again trying to heat our homes. I declare an interest to the House. In the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I have noted oil and gas industry interests which are relevant to this debate.
As has become apparent in the debate, fuel poverty is made up of a combination of three pillars: the cost of the energy itself, the income of the household, and the quality of the houses that people live in and are trying to heat. All three of those factors need tackling, and attempts have been made to do so over the years. I suspect that one of the mistakes probably made by all of us, but particularly by the previous Government, was relying on the cost of energy as the main platform for tackling fuel poverty in a period when competition brought down energy prices. We did not realise the need to get our housing stock well and truly up to standard to ensure that, when prices went back up, people would be able to afford to heat their homes because they would not need so much energy. The energy efficiency of homes and our housing stock is a crucial factor in building the long-term foundations for tackling the problem once and for all.
In the run-up to this winter, the Government are rightly trying to concentrate on making sure that energy bills are as low as possible by pushing for an end to the complexity. As Cathy Jamieson made clear, many people do not know how to shop around. They are faced with myriad complex tariffs and offers and are lured in to sign up to new contracts and, after that, a rising tariff. One of the ways of improving the markets and ensuring that at least bills are no higher than they should be is to have clearer tariffs and an end to the complexity.
The other problem is that of houses not on the gas grid. It would be interesting to hear, perhaps in the reply to the debate, whether anything can be done in Northern Ireland to extend the gas grid. If we can get more people on to the gas main, it will at least ensure that they have one of the most reasonable fuels for heating their homes in the immediate future.
However, not every house will be on the gas grid and we will have to tackle the problem of those that are not. Consumers of grid heating fuels such as gas and electricity have a market in which Ofgem—the regulator—and the rules consider how vulnerable customers are treated, and vulnerable customers cannot be disconnected in the winter. However, following the Office of Fair Trading inquiry and all the other reports on the off-grid, I am concerned that heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas suppliers do not have the same constraints on their market in terms of how they handle vulnerable customers and their relationship with them.