Fuel Poverty

Part of Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 2:35 pm on 21st March 2017.

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Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions) 2:35 pm, 21st March 2017

I will happily do so, and I have spoken about the triple lock on many occasions, but we have had debates here in the recent past in which many Members have questioned continuing with the triple lock. I am asking the Government to commit to retaining that triple lock in order to drive pensioners out of poverty. I commend the Government because they did the right thing in that particular case, but I hope that their commitment to the triple lock will be sustained so that it continues to drive pensioners out of poverty.

When they are right, I happily give credit to the Government, but I do not take kindly to Front-Bench Members laughing when I am standing up for my constituents in pointing out that the definition of “one nation” that the Government talk about is inappropriate when highlanders and islanders are not being treated fairly. There should be equity and fairness, but they do not exist in the UK today.

The highlands and islands of Scotland experience the harshest climatic conditions in the UK and record levels of fuel poverty. There is far greater, area-wide dependence on the use of electricity for heating as well as lighting, but the standard unit price charged is 2p per kilowatt-hour more than in most other parts of the UK, and 6p or more for the various “economy” tariffs on offer. Perhaps 2p per kilowatt-hour does not sound much, but it is a price premium of 15%. That is what this Government are doing to people in the highlands and islands. They are punishing people there on the basis of where they live, despite the fact that, in many cases, we produce the cheapest electricity, as we do in Skye. The Government are culpable over that, which is why I am asking the Minister to address the point when he sums up later this afternoon. That price for living in the highlands and islands is set by the Government, and it is not acceptable.

On top of all this, there is far greater reliance in off-gas areas on using domestic heating oil and solid fuel, which pushes up household heating costs further still. As a result, domestic energy bills in off-gas areas are, on average, £1,000 more per annum than the £1,369 dual fuel national average for 2014. Figures from the Lochalsh & Skye Energy Advice Service in my constituency suggest that the average total heating bills in Skye and Lochalsh amount to an eye-watering £2,218 per annum; for those whose primary heating is from oil, the average is as high as £2,519. To cap it all, electricity customers with prepayment meters, often the least well off, not only have to pay additional standing charges, but are discovering that their notional right to change to a cheaper supplier has become impracticable.

The Government must also accept that having 14 regional markets in the UK, with consumers in the highlands and islands paying a premium, is discriminatory. Many Members claim that responsibility for fuel poverty is devolved, which of course it is, but we have no control over the pricing or the regulatory environment; we can deal only with the consequences of fuel poverty that are symptoms of a market that is wholly under the jurisdiction of Westminster.

Our Government in Edinburgh have taken a range of actions to mitigate the effects of fuel poverty, but we need the tools that would come with having greater powers—notably through independence—to be able to deal fully with the circumstances that lead to fuel poverty. We are having to clear up the effects of the lack of a universal market and the pricing regime. Tackling fuel poverty has been a priority for the SNP Government, and by 2021 we will have committed over £1 billion to making Scottish homes warmer and cheaper to heat.

The financial support to tackle fuel poverty is increasing. The Scottish Government’s budget for fuel poverty and energy efficiency measures in 2017-18 will be £114 million, an increase of more than 11% on the previous year. An independent review of the way in which fuel poverty is defined has been undertaken by a panel of four academic experts in the light of concerns that current definitions may be impeding efforts to target those most in need. In the meantime, there is a new pilot programme in rural areas offering targeted support to cut energy bills.

Although fuel prices are beyond our control and fuel price moves can militate against our efforts to reduce fuel poverty, it is welcome that, owing to relatively stable market conditions, the number of people in fuel poverty in Scotland has fallen by 100,000. That reduction was heavily influenced by the measures that we have introduced. However, it is worth noting that fuel poverty in Scotland would be at only 8% if fuel prices had only risen in line with inflation between 2002 and 2015. High and rising pricing is our biggest enemy—and I use that word advisedly.

Scottish Government action has been commended by, among others, the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group in a recent report, but more needs to be done in a holistic manner to tackle the scourge of fuel poverty. New affordable homes are part of that mix, and this year the Scottish Government will invest £590 million to increase the supply of affordable homes in Scotland. Targeted financial support of £1,900 for low-income families through the Best Start grant also helps—support, incidentally, that is £1,400 higher than what is on offer from the UK Government.

We are taking our responsibilities seriously. Through those measures, through such initiatives as supporting a real living wage and through the recently published Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, we will use our powers to improve the conditions of many of those who are suffering fuel poverty in Scotland.

Finally, I want to reflect on the recently announced 14.9% increase in electricity pricing by SSE and on the fact that a 5% increase in prices pushes an additional 46,000 people in Scotland into fuel poverty. In the past, I have commended SSE for its customer service and the astonishing way in which its staff respond when bad weather leads to power interruptions, as it sometimes does during the winter months in the highlands. The speed of the response of the company and its customer service have been exemplary. Notwithstanding that commendation, however, it should be recognised that being effectively a near-monopoly supplier in the highlands and islands also brings a duty to act in a spirit of social responsibility. After all, in many respects SSE is a public utility in all but name. A price rise of this magnitude is simply not justified; the company has let itself down.

We await SSE’s financial results for the year to March 2017, but its interim statement forecast a year of growth and dividend increases. In the year to March 2016, its dividends to shareholders increased by 18.3% to £708 million. I would caution the company to ensure that it behaves in a socially responsible manner at all times. Increasing rewards to shareholders so generously does not sit well with the reality of so many of its customers being in fuel poverty, and now being pushed further into fuel poverty by this price increase. I am not against the company’s making a reasonable return on its investments—it must generate sufficient cash to invest in future electricity generation—but it must also balance the needs of all its stakeholders. In particular, affordability and the ability to pay bills must be at the heart of its thinking when it is addressing executive pay and shareholder rewards.

I welcome today’s debate, but we need action from the UK Government, most notably on the creation of a universal market. People should not be penalised because of where they live. Equity and fairness must be introduced, and it is time for the Government to take appropriate action.