Fuel Poverty

– in the Scottish Parliament at 10:19 am on 13th March 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 10:19 am, 13th March 2008

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-1550, in the name of Liam McArthur, on fuel poverty.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat 10:26 am, 13th March 2008

It is safe to say that over the course of the next hour and a quarter, we will hear members cite a range of statistics that are shocking, but which provide this Parliament and Government with an unambiguous call to action. Action must also come from the United Kingdom Government, local government, energy companies, civic Scotland and all of us as individuals.

It is simply unacceptable that, as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, more than 650,000 households in Scotland are in fuel poverty—a rise of more than 230,000 over the past five years. Help the Aged estimates that, among older people, who make up a disproportionate number of those in fuel poverty in Scotland, a shameful 320,000 households are spending more than 10 per cent of their disposable income on fuel, despite the introduction of innovative and welcome initiatives, notably the warm deal and the free central heating programme.

Although those initiatives have made a real difference to the quality of life of many thousands of older and more vulnerable people in communities throughout Scotland, the staggering increase in the cost of fuel over the same period has resulted in an explosion in fuel poverty. It is estimated that a 5 per cent increase in fuel prices will result in 40,000 more Scottish households falling into the fuel poor category. In the past year alone, fuel prices have risen by more than six times the rate of inflation. At the same time, the energy companies' profits have soared by 500 per cent. The responsibility on those companies to do more to address fuel poverty in this country is beyond any reasonable dispute.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I agree with every word that the member has said so far. Does he agree that the measures announced yesterday in the chancellor's budget are wholly inadequate for dealing with the current crisis?

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

There is an element of truth in what Alex Neil says.

In my constituency, the combination of the harsher climate and poorer housing stock with relatively lower wages and even higher fuel costs has led to acute difficulties in recent times. Such difficulties have been made worse by recent failures to carry out free central heating installations in a timely fashion. Those difficulties have not been helped by the continued unwillingness of UK ministers to consider a reduced fuel levy for remoter parts of the country.

Like other members, I know of older constituents who are choosing not to turn on their heating systems for fear of the bills that they might run up. The consequences of such action do not bear contemplating, not least when one considers that almost 3,000 deaths a year are already linked to people living in cold, damp housing. Such statistics are not in dispute, and nor is the political will across the Parliament to look at how we can address the problem, drawing on the lessons that have been learned to date.

Fuel poverty will continue to dodge any single magic bullet. That is why Liberal Democrats are challenging the Scottish Government to develop a one-stop-shop approach to tackling fuel poverty. Bringing together the warm deal, the central heating programme and the Scottish community and householder renewables initiative with effective advice services would make a real difference. That would make it quicker and easier to increase the installation of energy efficiency measures, such as better insulation, efficient central heating systems, microgeneration systems and smart meter technology. All those measures would not only save households money, but improve health and contribute to tackling climate change.

To achieve those outcomes, we believe that the Government should re-establish the fuel poverty forum, which should take the lead in developing a more joined-up approach that harnesses political consensus and drives concerted action. There should probably be a review of fuel poverty programmes first.

Under Nicol Stephen's leadership, Scottish Liberal Democrats are proud of playing a leading role in efforts to increase energy efficiency and promote microrenewables—both measures that can dramatically cut fuel bills for families in Scotland. However, we must do more. We call on the Government to make the installation of microgeneration schemes an easier and more attractive option for households. Planning rules need to be changed to remove one of the main obstacles to micropower installation, and we look forward to the Government taking swift action on the back of the consultation that has been launched.

We believe that using the local taxation levers that we have at our disposal is key. Evidence from elsewhere in the UK suggests that such incentives are tangible and therefore effective. I know that the minister has reservations about their use, but I hope that he will agree to consider seriously how such incentives, along with a range of other measures, might be made to work in the interests of increasing energy efficiency and reducing fuel poverty. In an otherwise acceptable SNP amendment, we need greater clarity on that point.

In their amendment, the Tories have sought to plagiarise our motion—I suppose that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—but they remain coy about energy companies' profits and unambitious about local tax incentives. The Labour amendment is an addendum to our motion and strengthens it in the key area of money advice and energy advice.

In preparing for this morning's debate, I was not hard pressed to find any number of startling facts and figures. As I said, some of them are deeply depressing in 21st century Scotland. However, I was struck by the clarion call from Energy Action Scotland's director Norman Kerr in the organisation's most recent edition of its quarterly journal, Energy Review. Although he acknowledges many successes over recent years, he expressed genuine disappointment that his organisation is still around to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.

I hope that all members will join me in committing to do what we can in this parliamentary session and beyond to create the conditions for making Norrie Kerr redundant. That would be a P45 worth celebrating. The Liberal Democrat motion today sets out a broad-based approach that can best achieve that worthwhile objective. I look forward to members' contributions to the debate.

I move,

That the Parliament deplores the fact that while household fuel prices have risen by six times the rate of inflation over the past year, power companies' profits have risen by 500%; is concerned that, for every 5% increase in fuel prices, it is estimated that 40,000 more Scottish households become fuel poor, while almost 3,000 deaths per year are linked to living in cold, damp housing; believes that tackling the social, health and environmental impacts of fuel poverty can save people money, improve health and help to tackle climate change; calls for the re-establishment of the Fuel Poverty Forum with a remit to include the development of a one-stop-shop approach to fuel poverty that increases the installation of energy efficiency measures, efficient central heating systems, microgeneration and smart meter technology; calls on the Scottish Government to consider the introduction of a local tax rebate to provide a further incentive to householders to invest in energy efficiency and microgeneration packages, and further calls for changes to planning rules to make it easier to install micropower.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 10:33 am, 13th March 2008

I start by warmly welcoming this debate on such an important area, which impacts on far too many households throughout Scotland. As we have said before in the chamber, this Government is committed to eradicating fuel poverty as far as is reasonably practicable by 2016. We signed up enthusiastically to the previous Administration's target, which was bold when it was established in 2001. However, fuel poverty has doubled since 2002, as Liam McArthur said in his opening speech. We have a real challenge, but we are determined to rise to it.

According to the report "Fuel Poverty in Scotland", which was published in 2004, a closer look at the evidence shows that increased energy efficiency has a role to play in affecting fuel poverty, but that 50 per cent of the reduction in fuel poverty up to 2002 was due to rising incomes. The rise in fuel poverty since then is mainly due to fuel prices, which, as we all know, continue to march upwards.

Although we continue to invest in energy efficiency and to look for ways to maximise the impact of that investment on fuel poverty, we are also doing all that we can to influence prices and incomes for people who are fuel poor. We might not have control over many of the factors that affect prices and incomes, such as the tax and benefits system and the regulation of the energy markets, but we have a strong argument and take every opportunity to make it.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Does the minister agree that the UK Government should earmark the additional revenues that result from higher energy and oil prices to tackle fuel poverty?

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I absolutely agree with Alex Neil that the UK Government is not going anywhere near far enough or quickly enough in tackling fuel poverty. I will come on to address some of the issues that I have raised with the UK Government.

I expect to be at the fuel poverty summit that the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets has convened on 23 April, at which I will engage directly with ministers from across the UK on the core issues and the need for action across the board. In November 2007, I wrote to Hilary Benn at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and John Hutton at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, underlining the need for the re-establishment of just this kind of dialogue, which has apparently not taken place formally for more than two years.

I have met the energy companies in Scotland and the Energy Retail Association to encourage them to maximise progress in helping their most vulnerable customers. I welcome the Ofgem probe into energy supply markets that it announced recently. I intend to keep up the pressure on those who determine prices to ensure that they do all that they can to protect vulnerable people from falling into, or getting deeper into, fuel poverty.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The minister has outlined a number of worthwhile discussions. In that context, will he take forward discussions with Ofgem and Treasury ministers on the possibility of using a windfall tax on emissions trading certificates to address fuel poverty issues?

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I fully expect many of these topics to be discussed at the fuel poverty summit on 23 April. There is a wide range of topics that we are all keen to see discussed, and a co-ordinated effort across the UK is needed to ensure that we tackle fuel poverty. Many of the levers—indeed, most of them—rest with UK ministers. I will raise a number of matters at the summit, including the issue that Liam McArthur raised.

Of course, the basic flaw in the political settlement is that it divides responsibility for these interconnected factors. As a result, too many of our households are left struggling to have a warm home. I see that as a key area for debate in the national conversation. In taking on the challenge of the fuel poverty target, we are maximising our impact on the factors that are not under our direct control. At the same time, we must ensure that we enable energy efficiency measures to maximise their impact on fuel poverty. We will do that by making the most effective use of our investment in the fuel poverty programmes. We will support that effort by maximising other opportunities for all householders to reduce their fuel costs.

I will give some examples. As Liam McArthur said, the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change announced on 4 March a consultation on reforming the planning system to encourage greater use of microgeneration equipment. The Sullivan report "A Low Carbon Buildings Standards Strategy for Scotland" sets out a route towards zero carbon new buildings. We are also funding a dedicated worker in the Energy Saving Trust to ensure that Scotland gets its fair share of funding for insulation from energy suppliers through their carbon emissions reduction targets.

Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing and I met many of the key stakeholders in tackling fuel poverty. We discussed how to reinvigorate the debate on fuel poverty and move forward in the most constructive way. We heard that the industry forum had not gone as far as stakeholders had hoped it would. Many said that they were disappointed with progress and felt that the forum had nothing more to offer. However, it is clear that there is much to discuss around how we can take things forward. We will continue those discussions. We are impressed by and welcome the stakeholders' appetite for a fresh start on the challenge to reach the 2016 target. As part of that wider debate, I also welcome this opportunity to hear members' views on what more can and should be done to tackle fuel poverty.

As I have discussed with the Local Government and Communities Committee, an internal review of fuel poverty work is being undertaken to take stock of what has been achieved to date, so that we can consider how to make improvements. I expect to share the findings with the committee once the review is complete. As is necessary for such an important issue at such a crucial stage, the review will be thorough and wide ranging.

I am determined to use our fuel poverty review as the starting point of a better and shared understanding of the action that we now need to take to tackle fuel poverty. Over the coming months, we must all focus our attention on the big picture of the fuel poor. Everyone must be part of that debate—parliamentarians, Government and all the groups that are concerned about or have an interest in fuel poverty—so that, together, we can come to a collective view on the way forward.

I move amendment S3M-1550.3, to leave out from "calls on the Scottish Government" to end and insert:

"recognises the Scottish Government's announcement on the consultation to remove planning restrictions on the wide range of energy generating and saving devices, and calls on the Scottish Government to make a statement to the Parliament before the summer recess outlining in detail its progress to more effectively address fuel poverty."

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 10:39 am, 13th March 2008

As Liam McArthur said, the Labour Party amendment is an add-on to the Lib Dem motion. The aim of our amendment is to reinforce the importance of the role of the voluntary and statutory organisations in giving appropriate advice to those who are in fuel poverty.

For eight years, fuel poverty was a critical issue for the Labour-led Executive and the Parliament. There is no doubt that the issue was championed by members from across the parties. Sadly, some of them are no longer with us—I think of Margaret Ewing. Those members kept the issue on the agenda and worked hard to ensure that it did not get lost in the normal day-to-day party-political battles in which some of us are all too happy to engage.

The issues with which we are wrestling are difficult. The debate is important in building agreement on action. It is right that it should spur us on in recognising that there are still people who are cold in their homes and who have to choose between heating their homes and feeding themselves. In addition, the consequences of the rise in fuel prices have huge implications for people who are in fuel poverty.

The minister has broader responsibilities, including the important issue of people having quality housing with effective insulation measures. A broader question needs to be asked about housing policy and how local authorities and housing associations are supported in meeting the housing quality standard. Many people wanted to vote to get rid of housing debt for just that reason. In that broader housing debate, it is important that we hear from the minister how the Government plans to address the issue.

Labour strongly supports the fuel poverty forum. We recognise the potential for developing a one-stop shop. In the past, things perhaps became overfragmented, which may have led to a lack of understanding. Critically, the fuel poverty forum recognised that Scotland is blessed with strong voluntary sector organisations. People such as Norrie Kerr and others are committed to addressing fuel poverty and are creative in developing policy. They are also robust in challenging Government through their advocacy for those who are in fuel poverty, no matter which party is in government. The forum could have a key role to play in bringing the power companies to the table to discuss further the development of the social tariff and the rationalisation and harmonisation of programmes to ensure greater reach, and to consider why the poor face disproportionate charges for fuel.

Although I am sure that Alex Neil will not agree with me, I recognise the important strand that energy issues played in yesterday's budget. We can debate how far the Government has gone in addressing the issues, but in the announcements that were made it recognised that the issue is important to everyone.

Of course it is important to link work on energy efficiency measures and fuel poverty programmes. We must also recognise the importance of sustained money advice and energy advice, as such advice can reach out to those who are most vulnerable and who suffer most when action is not taken. Although general energy efficiency issues are critical, we must not lose our focus on the issue of the poor paying disproportionate charges.

I am disappointed that neither the Tories nor the SNP want to consider the notion of tax incentives for microgeneration measures. Labour's Sarah Boyack has done a huge amount of work on the area—the Government would not have to look far to get advice—and engaged with loads of people in the sector. I hope that the minister will look further into the work that she has done.

However, the reality is that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth has set his face against such tax incentives. As a consequence, the hands of other ministers are tied. It is odd that a cabinet secretary who offered accelerated tax cuts to small business with no conditions attached will not support the use of taxation as a means of encouraging positive action on energy efficiency.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I need to make progress, and have one minute remaining.

Labour members have an agreement with our Liberal Democrat colleagues on the issue, although we may not agree with their position on local taxation. The motion is moderate in its demands. It asks the Executive to look at the possibility of a local tax rebate, and it is disappointing that the Government will not countenance that. Instead of closing down the debate, the Executive could have said that it would include that option in its report to Parliament.

We know the challenges that are involved in eradicating fuel poverty by 2016. We acknowledge the important work that is being done and the challenging points that energywatch Scotland has raised about the central heating programme. It is important that the debate progresses. The minister spoke of an internal review. I urge him to have the confidence to externalise the review, particularly around the central heating programme. That would enable the Executive to hear what those who are trying to deliver the programme have to say about the challenges involved and the programme's effectiveness. In his response to the debate, I hope that the minister will tell the chamber that he recognises the importance of doing that.

I move amendment S3M-1550.1, to insert after "technology":

"recognises the importance of continued support for voluntary and statutory organisations providing debt management, money and energy advice to those most affected by fuel poverty;".

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 10:44 am, 13th March 2008

The number of people who qualify as fuel poor dipped to a new low in this country in 2002, yet between the financial years 2004-05 and 2005-06, fuel poverty rose by 30 per cent, which was, of course, under the Liberal-Labour coalition. Most worryingly, nearly 50 per cent of single pensioner households are fuel poor. Therefore, although I congratulate Liam McArthur and think that he is right to highlight those appalling statistics, I point out that the situation came about under his Government's watch.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

Let me make progress—I will come back to the member in a minute.

I well remember in the previous session of Parliament taking on, in a short period, more than 100 cases involving senior citizens in the Highlands and Islands who could not get the free central heating that they had been promised. Some of those people who had no heating were in Orkney and Shetland. Because the proportion of elderly people in our population is ever increasing, a long-term solution must be found if the Government is to honour its pledges on the central heating programme.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

In a minute.

I am still listening to complaints on the issue from people from Campbeltown to Shetland.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Jamie McGrigor was quick to criticise the previous Executive, but he has been rather more coy about pointing to the 500 per cent increase in the energy companies' profits in the same period. As the minister and other members have made clear, the biggest driver of the increase in fuel poverty has been the rise in fuel prices.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

If the member will let me carry on, I will come to that.

We are told that there is a waiting list of 10,000 for the central heating programme, with an average waiting time of between five and six months. How many of those people might die as a result of that wait? The motion speaks of 3,000 deaths, which is a sobering thought. In my region, the Highlands and Islands, the problems are exacerbated by storms and bad weather, which often cut electricity supplies to rural households. More than a third of households in rural areas suffer fuel poverty whereas, in urban areas, the figure is a fifth.

I listened to the chancellor's speech yesterday, and it is good to know that he has finally woken up to the unfairness for customers who have prepayment meters. However, it is too late for most of those people, because they cannot get their money back. Prepayment meter customers pay on average £214 a year more than those who pay by direct debit, which is grossly unfair, particularly as the extra charge generally falls on those who can least afford it.

I am concerned that the latest price rises will hit low-income households the hardest. I welcome the response to political and customer concern about anti-competitive behaviour—we have the Ofgem investigation into the domestic retail market, which will report before the end of September, and the House of Commons Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee investigation. If the assertions that have been made are confirmed, steps must be taken to ensure that the customer gets a fair deal.

Increased energy efficiency can help the fuel poor. Scottish Gas has highlighted that, for every £3 that is spent on heating and lighting, £1 is lost immediately. Twenty-five per cent of carbon emissions are generated in the home, so we are wasting money and potentially damaging the environment. Energy efficiency measures are widely acknowledged to be the cheapest, cleanest and safest way in which to achieve Britain's climate change commitments. In addition, energy efficiency can make an important contribution on other energy priorities, including those on fuel poverty, supply shortages and sustainability. Best of all, energy efficiency makes money for those who invest in it—for example, installing cavity wall insulation can save £150 a year on energy bills in an average home.

I agree with Liam McArthur's sentiments regarding the fuel poverty forum, the goal of which was to end fuel poverty in Scotland by 2016. I note that the minister, Stewart Maxwell, has written to Westminster to ask the UK ministerial fuel poverty group to reconvene as soon as possible. Can he enlighten us as to the responses to that inquiry?

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

Apparently, he has not had a response—that is not very encouraging.

I support the investigations into the domestic retail market and the calls for the re-establishment of the fuel poverty forum. I call on the Scottish Government to ensure that the central heating programme reaches those who need it most as quickly as possible.

I move amendment S3M-1550.2, to leave out from "deplores the fact" to end and insert:

"regrets that the latest figures show that fuel poverty increased by 30% between 2004-05 and 2005-06, with nearly 50% of single pensioners experiencing fuel poverty, and welcomes the Ofgem investigation into the domestic retail market and the similar investigation by the House of Commons Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee; further regrets that almost 3,000 deaths per year are linked to living in cold, damp housing; believes that tackling the social, health and environmental impacts of fuel poverty can save people money, improve health and help to tackle climate change; calls for the re-establishment of the Fuel Poverty Forum with a remit to include the development of a one-stop-shop approach to fuel poverty that increases the installation of energy efficiency measures, efficient central heating systems, microgeneration and smart meter technology, and further calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that the central heating programme is reaching those who need it most."

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party 10:49 am, 13th March 2008

The motion proposes a local tax rebate. I understand the sentiment behind that, because anything that we can do to encourage more people to introduce energy efficiency measures and renewable energy sources must be welcomed. However, in effect, the proposal is for a £100 grant. Do members really think that giving a £100 grant will encourage people to spend £3,000 on a solar energy installation on their roof? I do not think so.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Does the member now not support the provision of grants for the installation of community and household renewables? Is such a grant not a great deal better than the Scottish National Party proposal to give £2,000 to first-time buyers for no particular purpose at all?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I support grants for renewables, but if we introduced that small £100 grant, the money would have to come from somewhere, and it might come from the more reasonable grants that can pay for a third of the cost of solar installations, which makes a difference. If there is a pot of money that we have not tapped into—some of the profits that the energy companies make could be used to provide more investment—grants for cavity wall insulation, which Jamie McGrigor mentioned, would have a much bigger impact. We should consider what more can be done to ensure that no houses in Scotland have cavity walls that are not insulated, as that is probably the easiest measure that we can take to have a big impact on fuel poverty and our CO 2 emissions.

It is a sad state of affairs when we must debate fuel poverty in Europe's most energy-rich nation. Scotland produces 10 times more oil and five times more gas than it consumes. We export 20 per cent of our electricity and have huge renewable resources, with 25 per cent of Europe's wind resources and about a quarter of Europe's tidal resources. We know that we face challenges in tapping into that huge renewable resource, but members are up for that challenge.

Despite the abundance of energy resources in Scotland, pensioners still die from cold and more than 1 million Scots live in fuel poverty. We all remember the massive price rises a couple of years ago that resulted in fuel bills rocketing. The reason for those huge increases was that the UK had become a net importer of gas, with about 5 per cent coming from overseas, despite the fact that Scotland is a net exporter. Scotland produces at least five times as much gas as the country uses, but a quarter of our households are fuel poor. That is the reality of the union dividend for the people of Scotland.

The previous Administration made a worthy effort to tackle fuel poverty—we must give credit where credit is due. The central heating programme made and still makes a big difference to households throughout Scotland. However, as we have heard from other members, as fast as some people are being pulled out of fuel poverty, more people are becoming fuel poor as a result of rocketing prices. The Parliament lacks resources to combat fuel poverty, the rate of which is three times that in England. We need power over regulation of the energy industry and control over Scotland's oil and gas to make a real difference to the hundreds of thousands of Scots who cannot afford to heat their homes.

Communities throughout Scotland hoped for strong action from the chancellor in yesterday's budget to ensure that energy companies put some of the huge profits that they make back into combating fuel poverty. The chancellor is not one for exciting speeches, and his announcement that energy companies will be encouraged to spend £150 million on social tariffs fell flat. Figures from energywatch show that the 5 million customers who have prepayment meters in the UK pay on average £255 more than consumers who pay online by direct debit for the equivalent energy. That tax on the poorest in our country means that energy companies rake in an extra £1.2 billion per year.

On the one hand, the chancellor talks about the energy companies spending £150 million, but we should compare that with the £1.2 billion a year that those companies make from the poorest energy users in society—it does not add up. The non-mandatory extra £150 million that the chancellor wants energy companies to put towards social tariffs is a drop in the ocean compared with the profits that those companies make. The budget attempts to tackle fuel poverty, but it fails to address the key underlying factor in the rise in fuel poverty, which is the high prices that energy companies charge people, particularly those who have prepayment meters.

Colleagues have shown their willingness to tackle the blight of fuel poverty. I agree with the majority of Liam McArthur's comments. However, the simplest way to combat fuel poverty is surely to take control of our huge energy resources and to ensure that the people of Scotland benefit from them—that would put an end to fuel poverty once and for all.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour 10:54 am, 13th March 2008

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate on fuel poverty. As has been acknowledged, it is a major issue, affecting 650,000 households throughout Scotland. Energy prices are increasing and energy companies are hiding behind the façade of rising wholesale prices. Analysis shows that much of the cost is being passed on to customers. It is a particular problem for pensioners—324,000 pensioner households are affected, which accounts for nearly half of the fuel poor. It is a particular problem in my constituency, where the number of pensioner households is high.

I disagree with Alex Neil and Joe FitzPatrick. There were some positive aspects to yesterday's budget. Increasing the winter fuel allowance for over-60s to £250 and for over-80s to £400 was a positive move and a step in the right direction.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Does the member accept that the increase in the allowance was 2.5 per cent compared with an increase in energy prices of around 40 per cent?

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

The fact of the matter is that for over-60s the allowance has gone up by £50 from £200, and for over-80s it has gone up by £100 from a base of £300. Those are significant increases, which are well above the rate of inflation. They are a serious step in the right direction of helping pensioners.

The minister asked for practical suggestions on how to move things forward. I will certainly give him some. He is committed to eradicating fuel poverty by 2016. In a recent debate, the Scottish National Party said that tackling poverty was at the core of its aims. Therefore, I am disappointed that it has not given support to Sarah Boyack's bill on energy efficiency and microgeneration. Measures in the bill include incentives to householders and housebuilders to put energy efficient measures in place and to offset council tax payments. Such incentives would tackle energy efficiency and fuel poverty. There is an excellent example of that in my constituency, where Rutherglen and Cambuslang Housing Association is putting solar panels in the housing stock, which is resulting not only in energy being used more efficiently but in reduced bills, particularly for pensioners. Sarah Boyack visited the scheme with me and we spoke to a number of pensioners who had experienced real benefits from it. The minister would be better going down that route than down the council tax freeze route. The £70 million from the council tax freeze would have been better invested in the scheme that Sarah Boyack proposes, which would have done more to tackle fuel poverty.

The minister should be a lot more robust in his discussions with energy companies. Prepayment meters have been mentioned. Direct debit customers pay £137 more and online customers £214 more. Scottish Power has a scheme for back-charging, which it has implemented in Scotland but not in the rest of the United Kingdom. I would like to know what discussions the minister has had with Scottish Power and other energy companies about prepayment metering.

I welcome yesterday's announcement by Alistair Darling of an increase from £50 million to £150 million to tackle social tariffs. He said that he would legislate if necessary to get that through.

We also need to consider smart meters, which are a good way of achieving energy efficiency. The minister should take forward the matter in discussions with energy companies. There is a sound business case for such meters for companies, because it saves them money and makes their billing systems more efficient.

There is broad agreement among members that we need to tackle fuel poverty, but we must also consider the practical suggestions for how we do that. The minister should look again at the Boyack bill and should be more robust in discussions with energy companies on prepayment metering and smart meters. In that way, he will demonstrate that he really means what he says about eradicating fuel poverty by 2016.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 11:00 am, 13th March 2008

It is no coincidence that a significant number of our debates centre around either water or fuel—water because we tend to have rather too much of it, and fuel because in our climate we are in constant need of it. In the north of Scotland, a home can spend 68 per cent more on fuel than one in the south of England. That factor lies behind the tentative debate in Scotland on the issue.

I was disappointed with the Conservative amendment. While most of the other amendments concentrated on measures to tackle fuel poverty, as far as I can understand it the Conservative amendment—apart from jumbling up the wording—seemed to exclude three issues: fuel company profits; the possible tax rebate for energy efficiency and microgeneration; and planning rule changes. Taking those issues out of the debate is not a helpful way to take the matter forward.

Across the board, the single most successful policy measure taken in the Parliament has been the free central heating scheme that was introduced for those people most challenged by fuel poverty. It is regrettable that the roll-out of that provision has fallen into arrears under the current Government. The delivery time has gone up from 114 days to 239 days. The minister must spare no effort in getting it back on track.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

The member is not comparing like with like. He is comparing the survey waiting time with the final installation time. Those are two separate sets of figures. He might as well compare apples and elephants.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I am not sure that that is necessarily a correct rendering of the matter. Over recent weeks, there has been quite a lot of publicity of the issue. The SNP Government has also flat-lined the budget in that area, causing a real-terms decrease of 2.6 per cent a year. I notice that the minister is not standing up to challenge that point.

There is probably more agreement on it being time to move forward on a more unified system, and to roll up the central heating scheme, the warm deal and the Scottish community and householder renewables initiative into a single gateway for accessing free installation of microgeneration technology and smart metering. It is also time to address the idea of a benefits check. I would like to develop those points a little.

As I have said in a number of previous debates, microgeneration has many advantages, but one of the biggest in this context is the potential for stable pricing, which is a huge attraction for people on low incomes. The challenge is the capital cost of the installation of microgeneration devices but, once installed, the resultant energy is not subject to price increases. That is why I welcome the Government's proposed relaxation of planning restrictions on such devices. However, the Government must go further. James Kelly rightly referred to housing associations, which are often pioneers in this field. They should be encouraged and funded to roll out microgeneration, and private householders should be given information and support to take it up. All of that would help to increase demand and—importantly—bring down the unit cost. Once we reach that take-off point, there will be a drive forward. Incidentally, there are big opportunities for Scottish businesses in that area. Joe FitzPatrick may or may not be right to criticise the incentive idea. It is certainly worth considering. All that the motion proposes is that we should examine the potential for encouraging the take-up of such devices in the private household market.

On smart metering, it is trite to say that people on low incomes are those most likely to have prepayment meters, but people do not always realise that such customers are likely to pay an average £214 a year extra for gas and electricity compared with the best deals available. Even worse is the way in which they can be thrown into unnecessary debt because of delays in recalibrating meters after a price rise. A while back, I had a motion before Parliament on that matter. Members should say quite categorically that it is the responsibility of the fuel companies—who make substantial profits, as has been pointed out—to sort that out. If they cannot, they should refrain from charging customers for the increase. No other business would get away with taking such a cavalier attitude to their customers. The whole subject is linked to the sluggish introduction of smart metering and the anti-competitive practices of National Grid, which recently earned it a £41.6 million fine.

This is a timely debate. I welcome the Government's constructive response to it but, at the end of the day, this is about living standards and the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland. Our response as a Parliament must be equal to the challenge.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party 11:05 am, 13th March 2008

As many members have testified, fuel poverty blights every region of this energy-rich country. I make no apology for pointing to a particular problem in my constituency. I cite the Western Isles as being where the problem afflicts Scotland most extremely. Seventeen per cent of Scottish households are officially in fuel poverty; in the Western Isles, the figure is 42 per cent or, if we aggregate the last three surveys, 46 per cent. In other words, getting on for half my constituents are paying more than a tenth of their income just to keep tolerably warm.

Some of the reasons for that are obvious enough: the wind-chill factor; the ageing population; and the unavailability of mains gas in most areas of the islands. There are also some distinct historical reasons. Government grants in the 1930s were designed to get people out of the thatched black houses, and another wave of housebuilding took place in the 1970s. The new houses were not all fuel efficient and many of them are now in need of significant repair. The most recent Scottish house condition survey indicated, unsurprisingly, that dwellings in the Western Isles score among the lowest in Scotland according to national home energy rating measurements. In the islands, 92 per cent of houses scored 6 or under on the 10-point scale.

Many people in the islands live in what might, at first sight, be classed as private sector accommodation, but their houses are in fact tied to crofts and to crofting legislation—and that is not to mention the several hundred people who are waiting to get a house at all. The islands have a huge task on their hands to deal with that legacy of inefficient and ageing housing stock, which was recognised by the Government's recent decision to dedicate an extra £750,000 to the housing repairs budget in the islands.

Given all that, like many other members, I looked hopefully to the UK budget for signs that fuel poverty would be genuinely tackled, but that hope was largely confounded.

I welcome any initiative, however small, to get a better deal for people who use prepayment meters, but the call from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the energy companies to spend an extra £50 million on social tariffs must be seen in two telling contexts. First, the social tariffs are not mandatory for the companies. Secondly, the sum amounts to less than a week's profits for them.

Whatever Westminster's failures in this area, I hope that we in Scotland can take a lead. Therefore, I welcome the freeze in council tax, which will, slowly but surely, take people out of fuel poverty. As the Scottish fuel poverty statement of 2002 made clear, it defines household income net of council tax. A local income tax would certainly remove more people from fuel poverty.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Does the member acknowledge that one of the key charges that the SNP must face is that a council tax freeze does not actually help the poorest people in our communities and, therefore, it is bizarre to claim that a freeze will somehow address fuel poverty? Regardless of the separate argument about whether the freeze is a good thing or a bad thing, it is certainly not directly in the interests of the poor.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

I thank the member for that intervention, and I challenge her to come to my constituency and explain to pensioners that it would be a good idea for them to continue to pay the council tax.

I welcome the current review of the Government's central heating scheme. Like other members, I pay credit where it is due. When it was first introduced, the scheme made significant progress in tackling fuel poverty—36,000 houses received central heating. However, any member who is alive to the contents of their mailbag must see the flaws that are now appearing in the scheme. The character of the scheme's operation has changed. In certain areas, certainly in the Western Isles and the other islands, there have been periods when no installations have taken place. It is unclear whether the scheme takes account of the needs of areas where there is no mains gas supply. I hope that, despite the howls of contrived outrage that greeted the news of a review—from some parties, anyway—we can all now see that if we are going to tackle fuel poverty, such a review is welcome and long overdue.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 11:09 am, 13th March 2008

I thank all the members who have contributed so far to the debate on an issue that I think is of fundamental importance to everyone in Scotland. As one of the ministers with responsibility for tackling fuel poverty through the central heating programme and the warm homes agenda in the initial years of the Parliament, I welcome the progress that we made. I will perhaps comment later in my speech on some of the regrettable developments since the election of the SNP Government last May.

I note with interest that virtually all the members who have spoken on behalf of the SNP so far have focused on what the UK Government and the chancellor could be doing about fuel poverty, rather than on the responsibilities and powers that they have in this Parliament. We should measure their contribution in that context.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I want to make progress on these fundamental issues.

We were making progress using the powers that we had in the Scottish Parliament. That is why we now have the central heating programme that was developed by the previous Executives. We gave support to energy efficient housing in new developments. The fact that 80,000 pensioners and almost 315,000 homes have, in different ways, benefited from those programmes is testament to the vision of the previous Executives.

There are concerns contained in the briefings that we have all received for the debate, not from political parties but from organisations that are involved in the sector. They are equally critical of what is being done here as they would be of what is being done at Westminster. That is right and proper, as they are campaigning organisations. We should be concerned that the waiting time for central heating installation has almost doubled. The minister might shake his head in disagreement, but those are not Frank McAveety's words nor the words of any other MSP; they are words from the briefing from Energy Action Scotland. The minister can take up the issue with Energy Action Scotland.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

Irrespective of whether the member is quoting Frank McAveety's words or anybody else's words, the fact is that the average waiting time has remained at roughly six months. It is six months this year; it was five to six months last year; and it was six months the year before. For the first two years of the programme, when Frank McAveety's Administration was in charge, the average waiting time was eight months.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

In a briefing paper, Energy Action Scotland cited 114 days in May 2007 and 229 days in January 2008. I know whom I would much prefer to believe. In their recent contributions at the Local Government and Communities Committee, the installers—the key agencies for delivering the programme—indicated that the ambition that the minister expressed to the committee would be difficult to fulfil in the time remaining.

Members have touched on the need to have a much more responsible approach to microgeneration, and some have identified ways in which that can be done. I stress the action that we can take here in Scotland, and I welcome the chance for further dialogue. The minister has indicated that the statement that will be made to Parliament in the near future will address the dialogue involving organisations such as Energy Action Scotland and the fuel poverty forum. That would be a welcome development.

We have considerable concern about the role of the major companies involved, but I understand that the Government has good relationships with them, in particular with Scottish Power. Let us engage in a debate with Scottish Power around its position of, in effect, not releasing the debt of people in Scotland who have prepayment meters, although it will do so for those elsewhere in the UK, in areas that the company has inherited owing to its expansion. It would be helpful to open up such a dialogue.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The member has one minute left.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I am in my final minute, and it is important to make this point.

We have major issues to address, as we have been called on to do by Energy Action Scotland and other organisations. One is the need to refine the central heating programme, in particular to address the installation time. I disagree profoundly with what the minister will probably say in his winding-up speech. In members' experience, there is an increase in the number of people who are waiting for central heating installation, and more problems are emerging in that regard.

There are many acronyms involved in the fuel poverty industry: HTA, or Help the Aged; ERA, the Energy Retail Association; and EAS, or Energy Action Scotland. This is a new one for me: MSFM—Mr Salmond's favourite minister. I ask Stewart Maxwell to concern himself with the issues that campaigning organisations and constituency and regional members of the Parliament have raised, and to make three differences on: installation under the central heating programme; a social insurance programme, as identified; and taking a one-stop-shop approach, as Liam McArthur suggested, to try to integrate what we do throughout Scotland. If we do that and advocate measures to tackle the fuel companies, we can address fuel poverty much more effectively.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 11:15 am, 13th March 2008

By and large, this has been a good debate with many measured speeches, which reflects the commitment throughout Parliament to tackling fuel poverty. I am grateful to Johann Lamont for mentioning our good friend Margaret Ewing, who did such fantastic work on the issue. I know that Alex Neil, too, would have liked to contribute, but the debate has been unfortunately too short. I will make an exception for Frank McAveety, who is quite an exceptional person. Some of us have long memories, so we remember the Labour-Liberal Democrat record in Government.

We acknowledge that there are three contributory factors to fuel poverty: household income, the energy efficiency of houses and fuel prices. I recall a debate in November 2003 in which Opposition members were forced to debate a motion that congratulated the Executive on the central heating programme's success in reducing fuel poverty. In that debate, I said:

"Although I accept that the Executive has made progress, I think that it is disingenuous to suggest that the reduction in the number of fuel-poor families is ... down to Executive and Government action."—[Official Report, 20 November 2003; c3522.]

Most independent commentators at the time acknowledged that the reason why there was a drop in fuel poverty up to 2002 was that price rises had been limited—there had been very few. I warned then that what comes down will go up and that when fuel prices started to rise, we would see a consequent increase in fuel poverty, which has proved to be the case. In 2002, 580,000 people in Scotland were in fuel poverty, and by 2005-06, the figure had risen to 959,000. Most of that increase was down to rises in fuel costs.

I take issue with what Frank McAveety said and contrast the record of this Government on the central heating programme with the record of his Executive. In Glasgow in October, November and December 2007—the three worst months of the year—under this SNP Government, there were 648 installations. In the same period in 2006, when Labour was in Government, there were only 34 installations in the Glasgow postcode area.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Yes, in a moment.

In my area of Fife, in October, November and December 2007, there were 183 installations in the KY postcode area. I will let members guess how many installations there were in the same period in 2006. Precisely none. This Government will not take lectures from those who failed abysmally to ensure that the central heating programme was available when it was needed. The record speaks for itself.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

The specific time that Tricia Marwick chose for her comparison was of course the time of the transition from Eaga delivering the programme to Scottish Gas delivering the programme. I was involved at the time and wrestled with these issues. I will not pretend that the figures were great, but they are explainable and we acted to deal with the situation. The SNP now has to act to deal with the fact that waiting times are increasing and people are losing confidence in the central heating programme and buying their own systems because they have been told to expect delays of up to a year. I have a constituency case if Tricia Marwick wants an example.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

The previous Executive was responsible for managing the transfer of responsibility, in which it failed abysmally. I welcome the fact that the minister has said that there is going to be a review of the programme. When the programme was introduced by the previous Executive, I said that I wanted it to be extended to families with young children. The one life-enhancing experience for young children is to grow up in a dry, warm home. I hope that the minister will consider including in the programme further categories of people who could benefit from it.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative 11:20 am, 13th March 2008

The debate has been interesting and constructive points have been made by members of all parties. I am pleased to acknowledge that even Robert Brown made constructive points today.

I acknowledge the points that were made by Alasdair Allan and Liam McArthur about housing in the Western Isles and the Orkney Islands. Those points need to be highlighted. I echo Johann Lamont's tribute to the late member who did excellent work here and at Westminster.

Any debate that raises awareness of fuel poverty is welcome, given that the Scottish house condition survey revealed a 30 per cent rise in fuel poverty between 2004-05 and 2005-06. Many factors determine fuel poverty: for example, the price of fuel, wage levels, welfare benefits and the type of fuel that is used. We can all argue about which is the most significant contributory factor, but none of us is arguing about the contribution of energy efficiency measures to household and business bills and to tackling climate change. We can also discuss the various incentives to invest in energy efficiency measures and microgeneration. I am pleased to hear that the Government is considering those.

In our manifesto for last year, we pledged to invest £12 million a year in an eco-bonus scheme for households, communities and small businesses, who would be able to apply for a grant to install modern energy-saving and energy- creating technology. That could include microgeneration, solar-powered heat and water and wood-fuel heating. Under the scheme, households and businesses would be entitled to apply for a grant of up to £4,000 to cover the cost of buying and installing a wind turbine or solar panel. Community projects could apply for a grant of up to £100,000. Consumers would see a cut in their energy bills, small-scale renewable technology production would be given a boost, and there would be a reduction in carbon emissions. Under such an initiative, there are no losers—there are only winners.

We also called for an urgent review of building standards to incorporate world class energy-saving design. I appreciate that we proposed a different incentive system to the one that the Liberal Democrats are proposing, but the end result would be the same.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Mary Scanlon made interesting points about incentives. I am therefore slightly surprised that the Conservative amendment to our motion would remove any reference to incentives and would not replace them with anything else.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

That is a fair point. I am now putting forward our suggested incentives. Whether they are better than the Liberal Democrats' incentives is a subject for debate. I think that our policy is excellent.

With Jim Hume, Jack McConnell, Rob Gibson and Robin Harper, I am the Conservative participant in the Friends of the Earth Scotland energy challenge for MSPs, which has been extremely interesting. I live in a 14-year-old house in Inverness, which I presume was built to all the required building standards of 14 years ago. It is quite shocking to see from the thermal imaging that the insulation is not quite what I thought it would be. The Tory Government did not build my house—I think that we need to ensure that builders are meeting energy efficiency requirements.

I have discovered local energy advice centres. I have to admit that I did not know that they existed and I hope that they will be rolled out throughout Scotland.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 11:24 am, 13th March 2008

This has been a constructive debate, although I suspect that Tricia Marwick mistakes being critical for being unconstructive. When one is in Government, one needs to recognise that hard things will be said, and one has to be responsible for what happens on one's watch. My constructive-comment count has been very high today, if I may say so.

I urge Government back benchers and the Minister for Communities and Sport to look again at the issue of a tax incentive. We are asking the Government only to consider it, as we believe that it will make a difference and a lot of work on it has already been done. Joe FitzPatrick said that the money would have to come from somewhere, which I accept. That is the responsibility of Government, and we ask it only to consider the proposal. I would be more likely to accept the note of caution about choices from a party that had not spent the morning criticising the choices that were made at UK level.

I want the Government to think about the choices that it makes. The incentive might be only £100, and it might not make as much difference as some of us might hope, but the Government has committed, at the last count, to over £200 million in business tax cuts, with not one condition concerning energy efficiency. The Government still advocates the £2,000 first-time buyers grant, which will inflate house prices and will not do anything to counter fuel poverty. Those are giveaways and, in that context, Joe FitzPatrick's comment about the money having to come from somewhere rings a little hollow.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Would Johann Lamont like to redirect the more than half a billion pounds that is being spent on the Edinburgh trams to tackle fuel poverty?

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I do not want to lecture Bob Doris on being in Government, but he needs to avoid having a single transferable alibi. The Government must take responsibility for the choices that it makes. I accept that the Government has chosen to freeze the council tax. It should not pretend that that will address fuel poverty—it will not, although it might address some issues.

Regarding the central heating programme, I note that the minister said that he is holding an internal review. If the Government is going to examine the central heating programme, it should not be in denial. There were hard issues in 2006, which we addressed. There are currently serious issues concerning the central heating programme, and the Government cannot pretend that those do not exist. I urge the minister to talk to those who are delivering. They tell us that the £7 million that has been announced by Nicola Sturgeon comes nowhere near to addressing the problem, and they tell us about the bizarre situation in which although we have the capacity for installations, companies are going out of business because they are not getting any work as a result of pricing levels. Those issues must be confronted.

The Tory amendment says that the central heating programme should be revised to ensure that it

"is reaching those who need it most."

That is the ultimate tension in the programme, so I urge the minister to ensure that we have an "open and constructive" debate on the issue, in the words of energywatch Scotland, which says some challenging things to all of us who saw the development of the central heating programme.

An internal review by the minister is not adequate—those who live with the programme have something to say. I welcome the fact that the minister has indicated his support for the fuel poverty forum, and I hope that that will be addressed, along with the broader issues that we have outlined.

On the work of Communities Scotland—and, I believe, the Scottish Building Standards Agency—being brought in-house, we need bodies that have a commitment to and an understanding of issues such as energy efficiency and fuel poverty. In the absence of those organisations, there must be greater pressure on the Government and its officials to ensure that that critical work—supporting housing associations, giving advice and ensuring that there is movement from policy to practical delivery—is still carried out. Whatever the weaknesses and criticisms of those agencies, they did an important job and I would like the minister to tell us how he intends to address their absence.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 11:29 am, 13th March 2008

As members have said, the debate has been interesting and generally constructive. It has involved many issues that members have raised on behalf of their constituents, which reflect the contents of my postbag. I will respond to a number of members' points.

Johann Lamont raised a number of issues, including the fact that our amendment would remove mention of tax rebate. Although that is technically correct, we want—as I said in my opening speech—to debate the big picture, and to consider all the options. We are not ruling anything out, which is why the amendment mentions bringing the issue back to Parliament for a full debate before the summer recess—with contributions from all parliamentarians, all the committees that have an interest in the area, and outside stakeholders—to decide how to tackle fuel poverty. That is important, particularly given the figures that many members have quoted today concerning the rise in fuel poverty levels in Scotland. All options are being considered, and nothing has been rejected at this stage.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Will the minister state for the record that, in that context, consideration of local tax incentives is still very much part of the review?

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

Any member and any party in Parliament can propose ideas to the debate. I have said that I have some doubts about tax incentives—we have discussed that in passing in the past few days—but it is a perfectly reasonable suggestion. We will debate that before the summer recess, and decide whether it is the proper way forward. There are a number of other options: Mary Scanlon mentioned a number of other possible incentives that we might want to discuss.

I said in my opening speech that I am more than happy to share the results of the internal review with the Local Government and Communities Committee and the rest of Parliament when it is complete.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Many people other than parliamentarians would want to contribute to the review, rather than just be given a report on it when it is complete.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I met a number of outside stakeholders, including Energy Action Scotland, last year. Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing and I met a wide range of stakeholders to ask for their opinions and contributions to the review—that is why we met them before ending the review.

On waiting lists for the central heating programme, we can argue about figures until the cows come home, but the average waiting time is roughly where it was last year and the year before. The number of people who are waiting the longest—at the furthest end of the list—is declining week by week under the programme that we have instigated.

Joe FitzPatrick rightly pointed out that we must use all the levers to tackle fuel poverty because we have very few levers in that area. Although other members, including Frank McAveety, said that we in Government spend our time moaning about the UK, the fact remains that the vast majority of the levers—including the levers for energy prices and the whole of the energy market—rest with the UK. It is right for us to point out that the UK must play its part, because it has the levers and we do not.

Frank McAveety also mentioned rocketing fuel prices in Scotland, and other members mentioned the fact that we have rocketing fuel poverty in an energy-rich Scotland. It is important to remember that Scotland is a net exporter of energy.

James Kelly and other members asked why the Government is not backing Sarah Boyack's bill on local taxation proposals. I ask Mr Kelly why the Labour-Lib Dem Executive did not back Sarah Boyack's ideas when it was in power for eight years. It had plenty of opportunity to do so, but it did not, so Labour members should not come moaning to us when we are thinking about it.

I have had robust discussions with the energy companies on a number of matters that are extremely important to us all. It remains the case that the UK Government has responsibility, so I would welcome James Kelly's support for us in ensuring that the powers are devolved to this Parliament, so that we can have robust discussions and take firm action when necessary.

Robert Brown mentioned renewables. The renewables pilot is ongoing and will report in the summer. We will respond at that point. Alasdair Allan made a particularly thoughtful speech about the situation in the Western Isles, and about the bigger picture with regard to fuel poverty and the role of the central heating programme within that.

I finish with a quote from a number of key stakeholders, including Energy Action Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Shelter Scotland, who recently wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing. In that letter, they said:

"In our view, the current programmes are not targeted effectively at fuel-poor households and are failing in their primary goal of eradicating fuel poverty. Ineffective targeting means that there are recipients of the programmes, in particular the central heating programme, who are not necessarily fuel poor."

That is one of the reasons why we instigated a review of fuel poverty. We want to find out whether, after seven years, the programmes are delivering. I welcome all contributions to the debate, and I hope that members will support our amendment so that we can have a full and frank debate about the issues that we all must sign up to so that we can move forward.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat 11:35 am, 13th March 2008

As the Lib Dem shadow Minister for Communities and Sport, it has been my pleasure to work with a number of people and organisations who are seeking to eradicate fuel poverty. Not least among them are Norrie Kerr and Elizabeth Gore of Energy Action Scotland. I know that they are dedicated to eradicating fuel poverty in Scotland, and I have seen some of their work in practice, when I visited a local pensioner in my constituency a few weeks ago who had just had her insulation upgraded free of charge.

Having been involved in working towards the eradication of fuel poverty in my constituency for a number of years, I know that the target of ending fuel poverty as far as possible by 2016 is tough. However, it is a target that will, if it is met, make many people's lives more comfortable, but for some it will also literally be a life saver. To reach the target will take a co-ordinated effort from a number of public, private and voluntary partners. That is why I welcome the dedication of Energy Action Scotland and others to eradicating fuel poverty in Scotland.

I also had a briefing a few months ago from Sam McEwan of the Energy Retail Association about pressing the Westminster Government to progress a national roll-out of smart meters. As that could be heavily subsidised by the private sector, it is shocking that Labour in Westminster has not welcomed the opportunity with open arms.

All members are aware of the devastating effect that rising fuel prices have on tackling fuel poverty in this country. From 2003 to 2007, the average dual-fuel bill rose from £543 to £914—a rise of 68 per cent in only four years. What have been the consequences? There have been rising levels of fuel poverty in Scotland and a massive increase in profits for the energy companies, with British Gas reporting annual profits of £571 million in 2007, up from £95 million in 2006.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer had the opportunity yesterday to address those obscene profits, but he chose to ignore them and instead allow the energy companies to continue to make huge profits on the backs of the most vulnerable in society. It is a scandal that customers on prepayment meters are paying more than those who have access to internet direct debit tariffs. Companies must make their cheapest social tariffs available to the most vulnerable customers.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Is Jim Tolson aware that in 2004 Mike Weir MP tried to amend the UK Energy Bill to ensure that additional tariffs in prepayment meters would not be allowed? In 2008, Alistair Darling has again refused to act. Does the member agree that, as a one-stop shop to tackling fuel poverty, competence for energy prices should be returned to this Parliament so that we can tackle fuel poverty?

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

Although a one-stop shop would do a lot of things, we are not seeking an independent Scotland on the back of it.

Presiding Officer,

"Companies like EDF Energy and British Gas have made significant efforts" with social tariffs,

"But one thing the Government should have learned by now is that relying on voluntary action by suppliers will not deliver the goods."

Those are not my words, but the words of energywatch in the aftermath of yesterday's budget, to which Frank McAveety also referred. Liberal Democrats believe the fuel poverty forum should be re-established—my colleague Ross Finnie has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing on that very matter.

Included in the minister's deliberations should be an examination of the development of a one-stop-shop approach to fuel poverty that increases the installation of energy efficiency measures, efficient central heating systems, microgeneration and smart meter technology. Only by taking immediate action will the Scottish Government be able to tackle the growing number of individuals who are in fuel poverty.

There have been some very good speeches, not least from my colleague Liam McArthur, who opened the debate by highlighting the disproportionate effect on elderly households and the poor quality of houses that many people reside in, particularly in the island communities. Jamie McGrigor made a good point about the Highlands and Islands suffering more because of the frequent breaks in energy supply.

Johann Lamont raised the important issue of not only the 2016 fuel poverty targets but the 2015 targets to improve the quality of homes throughout Scotland.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The member should be winding up now.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

Nearly there.

Stewart Maxwell made the welcome statement that all options would be considered and that a debate on fuel will be held before the summer recess. I also welcome the minister's assurances on reform of the planning system in respect of microrenewables.

I am heartened by what I hope is Government support for our motion—it has been a while in coming. This has been a mostly consensual debate, and I hope that members from all round the chamber will support our motion whether amended or not.