Fuel Poverty

– in the Scottish Parliament on 26 October 2011.

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Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-00760, in the name of Jenny Marra, on fuel poverty. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the rising number of fuel poor in Scotland; understands that there are now 900,000 such households; considers that fuel poverty will rise further this winter in light of what it considers to be drastically increased domestic fuel prices; further considers that, if this winter is as harsh as that of 2010-11, there will be a risk of people being unable to heat their homes; notes the Scottish Government’s target to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016, and would welcome action this winter to prevent fatalities and households across Scotland having to decide between heating or eating.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

Members may be aware that the Scottish fuel poverty forum met this morning for the first time under its new chair, Professor David Sigsworth. I wish him the very best of success, and I hope that the Scottish Government will have learned from its mistakes in neglecting the advice that led to the resignation of the forum’s previous chair, Graham Blount. Early in my speech I ask the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment to guarantee that he will assist the forum in a much more productive way by publishing its remit and revealing who will provide the secretariat to the forum. I also ask that the forum will be given all the information that it requests from officials.

Fuel poverty is a serious concern for hundreds of thousands of people throughout Scotland, and it is the poorest who suffer most. With some 900,000 households struggling to meet their increasing fuel bills, the Scottish Government must do whatever it can within its powers to honour its obligation under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016. We have a long way to go to achieve that. Rising fuel prices, harsher winters and stagnating wages are undermining efforts to meet the 2016 target. As recent reports state that the cheapest dual-fuel price has—for the first time—risen above £1,000 per annum, we face a huge challenge to stem the tide of those who are falling into fuel poverty in this country.

Fuel poverty affects us in Scotland uniquely. In Braemar in my constituency, heating a home takes 55 per cent more fuel than is needed to reach the same standard in Bristol. That is because we face colder, longer winters and because our households are more likely to be in rural locations, not to be connected to the main gas grid and to be harder to heat. That causes many problems.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

No, thank you.

Health and wellbeing suffer as people choose between heating and eating, and our carbon footprint continues to grow. Circumstances are tough, but we have convened here today on the cusp of winter—as the clocks go back this weekend—in the knowledge that the Parliament can make a difference. As representatives of people across the country who worry about the impending winter, we have the responsibility to use the powers that are available to the Parliament to tackle fuel poverty to the best of our capability.

We have significant powers, not least in areas such as maximising energy efficiency. We have the ability to create policies that help the growing number of families, single occupants and elderly people who are vulnerable to fuel poverty. Too often, the Scottish Government has neglected its duty to tackle fuel poverty. It has used cross-legislative jurisdiction as an excuse and has overemphasised the powers that we do not have, rather than used the powers that we have.

I say to those who believe that we can tackle fuel poverty only through the exclusive right to regulate energy prices that they are wrong. Powers to regulate energy companies are reserved, but we can develop well-funded and well-targeted policies in the Parliament’s remit that work in tandem with Westminster to reduce fuel poverty. Ignoring that role and responsibility is a breach of our contract with the Scottish people.

In his speech to the Scottish National Party conference last weekend, the First Minister said:

“We don’t control the energy markets but we can and will do something to help.”

I hope that he will be true to that pledge this winter. So far, campaigners have been disappointed to find that Mr Salmond has cut expenditure on tackling fuel poverty from £70.9 million in 2010-11 to £48 million in 2011-12. That is a reduction of almost a third, at a time when fuel poverty is worsening.

In answer to my question a couple of weeks ago about a Government underspend in last year’s fuel poverty budget, Alex Neil said that last year’s £7 million underspend was being “recycled”. What does that mean? Is the money subsidising this year’s budget? Does it mean a further £7 million cut in real terms on top of this year’s £23 million cut? That would be a cut of £30 million from the Government’s fuel poverty spending in the past couple of years, while the poorest households have suffered the harshest winters and some of the steepest energy price increases in living memory.

What could the Scottish Government do if it was not cutting the budget by £30 million? Fuel poverty campaigners suggest incentivising installers to deliver insulation and energy efficiency schemes in very remote and rural areas. In the Western Isles, 58 per cent of households are fuel poor. In Orkney, the level is 44 per cent. Those figures are unacceptable, but not irreparable. By incentivising installers to travel to those areas, we can target resources efficiently for those who need them most.

Similarly, improvements could be made to widen access to resources for the most vulnerable by investing in the Scottish housing quality standard, which could be expanded not only to improve the performance of households in the social rented sector but to include the private rented sector in the scheme. That policy needs resources to work. In 2009, 62 per cent of dwellings failed the SHQS, and most failed on energy efficiency criteria.

For the rest of the United Kingdom, the Government has announced that privately rented properties are to meet minimum energy efficiency standards before they are allowed to be let. The Scottish Government has the power to implement a similar policy if it so chooses. Such schemes should be underpinned by proper incentives and regulation if they are to make a difference.

Those are just two initiatives in the campaign against fuel poverty. The continuing drive for consumers to maximise their fuel efficiency must be supported. Similarly, schemes that target harder-to-heat homes in communities in which homes are off the main gas grid would offer significant rewards when we are looking to reduce the overall levels of fuel poverty in Scotland. It is important to recognise that those opportunities are our opportunities in the Parliament. The prerogative rests with the Scottish Government to fully utilise the powers that it has to help the rising number of fuel poor in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No. The member is in her final minute.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

I am winding up. I am sorry.

There must be a tangible commitment to policies, underpinned by a robust budget commitment, that will deliver practical help to those who need it most. I hope that the debate will go some way to urging the Scottish Government and the First Minister, as he said, to do something to help the fuel poor this winter.

Photo of Aileen McLeod Aileen McLeod Scottish National Party

I thank Jenny Marra for raising in Parliament the important issue of fuel poverty in Scotland. We all regularly discuss the matter in debates, because it affects all constituencies—or one third of all households, to be exact.

Rural households are twice as likely to be in fuel poverty as urban households. I have a particular regional interest in that because I represent South Scotland where about 41 per cent of families are said to be living in fuel poverty—the third-highest rate in Scotland. Thanks to the Scottish Government’s home insulation scheme, £300,000 will go towards assisting some 6,500 homes in Stranraer and north Rhins that have the highest levels of deprivation.

The debate is timely; the Scottish Government is already asking whether we are ready for winter. I have been asking my constituents that, and have written to all domestic fuel providers in South Scotland to find out how they are encouraging customers to be prepared. Launching the campaign on Monday, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, rightly said that no one can be certain what this winter will bring weatherwise. For that reason, we must ensure that people are adequately prepared for every eventuality.

Let us be clear; it is not just in the winter months that fuel poverty becomes apparent, but it is a key indicator of where work needs to be done to protect the most vulnerable people in our society. I am delighted that, at the start of this month, the Scottish Government announced a 35 per cent funding increase for fuel poverty and energy efficiency programmes. That involves an extra £5 million being put into the energy assistance package, and is a measure that is designed to help hard-pressed families in Scotland to make it through this winter without added financial burden.

I am sure that members will welcome the commitment that has been made by the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Alex Neil, in his statement to Parliament on 5 October, to review the fuel poverty strategy to take into account recent energy company price rises. It has been estimated that the recent fuel price increases will push up to 170,000 more Scottish households into fuel poverty. That is unacceptable by any standards, and I know that the cabinet secretary is pursuing that issue with UK Government counterparts. It is clear to me that, until Scotland has complete control over our energy resources, we cannot realise our full potential as an energy leader in Europe. Furthermore, that would ensure that we were able to tackle fuel poverty more effectively and efficiently.

Photo of Aileen McLeod Aileen McLeod Scottish National Party

No. I would like to keep going.

At the Scottish National Party conference in Inverness last week, Alex Neil announced a £1.5 million increase in the boiler scrappage scheme. That scheme has been a resounding success, and it will cover more than 10,000 houses in Scotland. In the face of savage budget cuts from Westminster, the SNP remains committed to eliminating fuel poverty and to using every resource that is currently available to do so. Within that remit falls the fuel poverty forum and the renewed approach that boosts links with the sustainable housing strategy group. Joint action can be taken on housing and fuel poverty. That is exactly where things need to start.

I have given just a few recent examples of what the Scottish Government is doing to ensure that fuel poverty levels are decreasing in Scotland. I pay tribute to the other organisations that are playing their part in driving down the worrying statistics; local authorities and third sector organisations such as Energy Action Scotland and the Energy Saving Trust are also working to eradicate fuel poverty, and registered social landlords are building energy efficiency measures into new-build housing. For example, people who live in the new Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership homes in Stranraer that were built under the neighbourhood renewal programme benefit from much lower fuel bills because of the high levels of insulation and other energy efficiency measures.

We must inspire a generation of Scots to drive down fuel poverty and to create awareness of fuel efficiency measures that we hope will carry on to future generations. The Parliament must work towards that. A legacy that I am sure that we would all welcome is the eradication of fuel poverty in Scotland.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I, too, congratulate Jenny Marra on the debate, which is hugely important and which is well placed because it follows our debate on winter resilience. In that debate, many points were made about the importance of addressing fuel poverty as part of winter-resilience preparation. I will repeat a statistic that I gave in that debate, because it is horrific: Age UK tells us that every day in Britain this winter, 200 people will die of cold-related diseases.

The draft budget proposes £65 million for energy efficiency and fuel poverty measures. This morning, the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee heard that there should be at least £100 million from the Scottish Government if it is to have any hope of meeting the 2015 target. As well as low-cost energy, we need insulation. In Sweden, people pay much more for their energy, but they pay about 30 per cent less to heat their homes than do people in Scotland, and that is down to insulation. Insulation falls under the Scottish Government’s responsibility, so it must either ensure that adequate grants are available to people who are fuel poor to insulate their homes, or set up a programme to install that insulation. Rather than slash budgets, the Government must introduce measures. That would be a spend-to-save initiative.

If we lift people out of fuel poverty, it improves health and educational attainment in young people. A knock-on benefit is that, if we keep the jobs local and give them to small and medium-sized enterprises, we boost local economies. It is a win-win situation, not only for those who are living in fuel poverty and for the other services that benefit by not having to pick up the pieces, but for the people who obtain jobs as a result.

We must consider microrenewables, which I have spoken about a number of times. Those who can afford to fit microrenewables then get the feed-in tariffs that quickly pay back the investment. However, fuel-poor people do not have sufficient capital to invest in microrenewables. It would not be difficult to find a solution that would allow people who are fuel poor to benefit from microrenewables and to use feed-in tariffs to repay the costs.

Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

Does the member agree that the minister should publicise more the solar panel schemes that are available, whereby householders benefit by gaining up to £250 towards their electricity costs over a year at no cost to them?

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Yes—I am aware of a number of schemes of that nature in which companies take the feed-in tariffs and make that investment. We must use those schemes, but people who are fuel poor tend not to be able to shop around and find such schemes. Therefore, the Government has a responsibility either to push people in that direction or, as I would prefer, to set up a scheme.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I am short of time, so I will plough on, if the member does not mind.

I want to talk about the central heating scheme for older people. It remains a real concern to me that people who are off-grid for gas have to install storage heaters, which do not meet housing-quality standards. Those people would prefer to fit oil or gas central heating systems, but they are told that they have to pay the difference, which can sometimes reach many thousands of pounds. Fitting of systems that are not responsive, that are expensive to run and which really do not fit with the housing-quality standards forces people into fuel poverty. I ask the Government to look at that again.

The big six energy companies, which have responsibility for helping people and have budgets, which have been outlined by Government, need to look at how they reach out to communities such as those in the Western Isles that do not benefit at the moment. The eradication of fuel poverty is enshrined in legislation; we have to meet the 2015 target.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I congratulate Jenny Marra on bringing the issue for debate. I apologise for the fact that I did not appear to be paying attention to the opening part of her speech; I had a problem with my console for some reason and was trying to get it reorganised.

It is important that we discuss the matter once again. I do not intend to rehearse all the arguments—we will have other debates in which we can do that—but in what I intend will be a relatively short speech I will deal with a specific issue that gives me grave cause for concern.

As we all know, fuel costs are rising, and they are rising fast. We have seen the problems that are associated with energy suppliers making what appear sometimes to be arbitrary increases in their charges. Of course, Government action is happening both north and south of the border in an attempt to persuade companies to keep their energy prices down. However, I remind the minister that his own Government is pursuing a long-term energy policy that seems to keep its priorities in relation to energy supply at the top end of the cost range, rather than at the bottom. Wind power and carbon capture and storage do not come cheap and, consequently, they could add to fuel costs, over time.

However, that is not the cause of the fuel costs that we have today. Energy prices are high, which has unfortunately coincided with a period when wages tend to be depressed. The specific problem is that, as a result of flatlining wage settlements and increasing fuel costs, a large number of people who were not defined as being fuel poor in the relatively recent past are being drawn into fuel poverty. Worse still, many of those people do not realise that they are already, or are about to become, fuel poor. The Government has a responsibility to ensure that we take the opportunity to advertise the fact that difficulties are being experienced, because many people out there will be suffering as a result of the changes and will be unaware that there are options for them to receive Government support.

I believe that there is a particular problem in the private rented sector, which quite often is the housing supply of necessity for many of the people who are about to be affected by fuel poverty, particularly those in the harder-to-heat rural environment, where we know that costs are likely to be higher.

My concern in this debate is to highlight the fact that there is a group out there who have not been fuel poor in the past but who realise that their energy costs are becomingly cripplingly high and who will fall into the category of being fuel poor in the future. We need to take all the schemes that we have discussed in the debate—and will continue to discuss—and all the opportunities to assist that have been discussed in previous debates and focus them on a new group who do not realise that they were fuel poor but who are, I am afraid, becoming so.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I apologise to you, Presiding Officer, and to other members because I have to leave before the end of the debate to get to an appointment in Cumbernauld.

I congratulate Jenny Marra on securing tonight’s debate on a very important issue. Far too many people in Scotland—one third of Scottish households—are in fuel poverty. It is an absolute outrage in this fuel-rich country that any household is in fuel poverty.

Let us consider the effects of fuel poverty on individuals and families. Professor Hills, who is director of the centre for analysis of social exclusion at the London School of Economics, has argued that fuel poverty poses serious public health and environmental problems. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are some 27,000 extra deaths in the UK each winter compared to other times of year. That figure is worse than the figures for Finland, Sweden and Norway, all of which have severe winters more regularly than these islands do. Professor Hills and his team estimate that, in about half of cases in which a death was attributed to lower-than-average indoor temperatures, there were economic reasons.

The manifestations of problems that are associated with fuel poverty, particularly in wintertime, are stark and serious. However, lest we think that it is only a wintertime issue, I point out that fuel poverty affects families all year round. It is a disgrace that some families are forced to choose between heating and eating.

Fuel poverty occurs against the backdrop of oil and gas from Scottish waters funnelling billions into the UK Exchequer, and the energy companies enjoying great profits at increased price for households. Earlier this month, the Office of the Gas and Electricity Markets released figures that show that profit margins for energy firms have increased to £125 a year per customer from only £15 earlier in the year. As Jenny Marra mentioned, the average dual-fuel bill is now more than £1,000 a year. That is set to rise by £175 to reach £1,345 by next month. That is clearly a significant challenge for any household, but especially for those that are in fuel poverty.

I welcome the fact that the First Minister is calling for the big six energy companies to meet the Scottish Government and stakeholders to discuss the issue, and I am sure that the cabinet secretary will tell us more about the plans for that meeting. However, reform of the industry that is more fundamental than a simple meeting with those companies is required.

That is why, although there is nothing objectionable about Jenny Marra’s motion, I did not feel that I could sign it and lodged an amendment to it that acknowledges the part that fuel costs play in driving fuel poverty. Jenny Marra mentioned that in her speech, but her motion fails to acknowledge the part that energy companies play in the problem. That is why my proposed amendment suggests that the Parliament

“recognises that the energy market is a reserved matter, and believes that power to legislate in this area should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament to allow for better regulation of the market as a vital tool in tackling the problem of fuel poverty in Scotland.”

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I am just about to conclude, otherwise I would have been delighted to give way.

If we are serious about tackling fuel poverty, the conclusion in my amendment is inescapable for the Parliament. We cannot simply complain regularly about fuel poverty without acknowledging that the powers that we have to deal with the problem are limited. I urge all members to support the transfer to this legislature of powers such as those that are called for in my amendment, so that we can end the scandal of fuel poverty in a fuel-rich society.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Due to the number of members who still wish to speak, I am minded to accept a motion without notice to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Rhoda Grant.]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Anne McTaggart Anne McTaggart Labour

I thank Jenny Marra for securing the debate.

As we are all aware, the number of fuel-poor households has reached a staggering figure and, alarmingly, that figure continues to rise. That cannot be allowed to continue. People will be asked to prioritise food or fuel as we approach the winter months, especially if the weather is as severe as it was last year. It should be acknowledged that an affordable, warm, dry home is a basic human right.

Some extremely valuable services offer lifelines to the most vulnerable members of our communities. For instance, Glasgow Housing Association has specially trained staff members to provide tenants with energy-saving advice. The free home visit by GHA’s energy specialists allows tenants to be guided through the process of ensuring that their homes and lives are more energy efficient. It is not only through Glasgow Housing Association that support has been made available. The Glasgow home energy advice team—G.HEAT—offers Glasgow residents free and impartial advice on all aspects of energy use.

Both those services can help residents to save money on their fuel bills, as well as making their homes easier to heat. The key service that they—particularly G.HEAT—offer is that they can provide not only much-needed advice but invaluable advocacy. I am sure that all members have personal experience of the hassle that can arise from trying to change suppliers. However, for many of our most vulnerable groups, the task of trying to rearrange utility provisions is far more daunting than we can ever imagine. That is where G.HEAT can make a difference to people’s lives. Its specially trained advisers can act on residents’ behalf when dealing with the energy companies and arranging better deals. If the Scottish Government is serious about helping some of the 900,000 fuel-poor households, it needs to recognise and build on the positive work and engagement of the likes of GHA and G.HEAT. In order to do that, we need to expand that model throughout the public and third sectors.

Energy Action Scotland has provided fuel poverty training to a number of groups and individuals, who are already engaging with potentially fuel-poor households. By utilising the networks of midwives, community psychiatric nurses and other health professionals who are already in contact with vulnerable people and have their trust, we can truly start to lift people out of fuel poverty. The Scottish Government must provide additional funds to facilitate that type of training. I am aware that I said that earlier. I am sure that the minister will mull over Rhoda Grant’s reply on that point.

When dealing with fuel poverty, we must not shy away from the fact that we are dealing with fuel poverty as a whole. In doing that, we must think about the institutions that continue to make a positive impact on the lives of impoverished people in our communities. We need to strengthen the support that is available to the credit union movement, which continues to provide low-cost, affordable loans and financial services to its members. We need to ensure that the ethical model of credit unions is promoted, reflecting credit unions’ positive record of supporting fuel-poor members by engaging in advice and guidance services.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I would be grateful if you could close now.

Photo of Anne McTaggart Anne McTaggart Labour

The credit union movement has utilised its low-cost loans to members to buy out prepaid meters, which have been shown often to hit poorer people harder.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You must close now.

Photo of Anne McTaggart Anne McTaggart Labour

Also, by providing credit union—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You must close, thank you very much.

Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

I congratulate Jenny Marra on securing the debate, as fuel poverty is one of the most significant problems of this era. Unfortunately, we are losing the battle against fuel poverty at the moment, in the face of exorbitant increases in energy costs and decreases in real incomes, especially for the most vulnerable people in our society. However, I am disappointed in Jenny Marra and her colleagues because, in their long years of power in Westminster and Scotland, when the sun was shining and budgets were rising year on year, they failed to fix the roof, but they expect us to fix it now that it is raining.

Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

No, I am just beginning.

I am disappointed that they do not show some humility in that respect and in respect of the fact that, across that period, the indices of inequality, in every measure, increased rather than decreased. That is a badge of shame for the Labour Party.

I thought that I heard a Tory member speak earlier in the debate, but he seems to have gone, and there are no Liberal Democrats in the chamber either. What a disappointment. Is that a reflection of the seriousness with which they view this problem?

There are three main factors in fuel poverty. The most important is income inequality, which I have mentioned. Our northern European neighbours have far more equal societies than we do. The second most important factor is the steeply rising fuel prices, which look set to continue well into the future. The third factor, in order of priority, is our relatively uninsulated housing stock. Again, the Scandinavians put us to shame in that regard. The Scottish Government has taken all reasonable steps to tackle that problem, introducing a range of insulation and energy efficiency measures.

Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

No, thank you.

The Scottish Government has increased the funds for those measures in this coming year by 32 per cent, in the face of Westminster capital cuts of almost 40 per cent. By contrast, the Westminster Government is failing to properly regulate the energy suppliers.

Recently, a Lib Dem MP, Alan Reid—members might not have heard of him—proudly told me that his Government was taking two major steps to combat fuel poverty. First, it was making it easier for people to switch suppliers. Consumers will therefore be able to switch easily from one supplier who has just implemented a 20 per cent price increase to another supplier who has also just implemented a 20 per cent price increase. Members will understand my reluctance to compliment the honourable gentleman on that measure.

The second measure is that the Government has apparently extracted a promise from the energy suppliers that they will not increase prices this winter. Given that they have just increased their prices by 20 per cent, that hardly seems to be much of a concession. That is what we in Scotland expect from Westminster—cold comfort.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

Does the member accept that the Scottish Government should do everything in its power and not use the issue as a constitutional point-scoring exercise? It is far too important.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr MacKenzie, you must close at four minutes.

Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

I am also appalled at the lack of understanding about the true scale of the problem and the expenditure that it would take to solve it. I put it to Jenny Marra that it is far more than another £50 million or so a year. I would be happy to speak to her about that in detail later, but I must continue.

It is also a fact that fuel poverty is significantly worse in Scotland than it is in England. Perhaps our unionist friends in the chamber will explain whether that is part of the much lauded union dividend.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You must stop now, please.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I add my congratulations to Jenny Marra on bringing the debate to the chamber, but it is infuriating to listen to members saying what an important topic this is, then turning it into a game of political football. That does not bring much honour to any of us.

Notwithstanding Mike MacKenzie’s contribution, I say to Jamie Hepburn that he knows very well that I will campaign alongside him for a yes vote on independence. I see no reason why Westminster should continue to control the regulation of the energy industry, as I do not think much of the way in which it has exercised that control over the years. However, let us not kid ourselves that Scottish control over the regulation of the energy industry would reawaken the myth of cheap and abundant energy. The Green party and environmentalists in many other political parties, often sadly without a majority, have argued for years that the idea of cheap and abundant energy is coming to an end and that we will have to live in a new era in which energy is a rarer and less cheap commodity.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I thank the member for his generosity in taking my intervention. Does what he has just said not gloss over the fact that one of the drivers of fuel poverty is the cost of domestic fuel and that the energy companies are profiteering? They do not need to be making the profits that they are making just now. Surely the member has to accept that.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Even if there was majority support for the nationalisation of the entire industry—and I doubt that we are at that level yet—we would still be living in a world in which energy will continue to increase in cost. That is the reality that we have to acknowledge, and it is why investment in the housing stock and in demand reduction, which goes beyond energy efficiency, has to be the way to bring people’s bills down in addition to generating energy locally and in community and public ownership where possible.

Earlier today, the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee heard evidence from more than one witness that agreed with the proposition that energy prices will continue to increase more or less regardless of any Government’s energy policy. I do not think that there is a policy for cheap energy available to us either in Scotland or at Westminster or, indeed, globally. That is why investment in the housing stock is key to reducing fuel poverty as well as to reducing our emissions.

We also heard evidence from Norrie Kerr of Energy Action Scotland on the 2016 target. He told us very clearly that, although it is still theoretically possible to reach that target if we increase our spending, at current spending levels as outlined in the spending review we will certainly miss that target. That is the position that we are in at the moment. We have agreed to a target for the best of reasons but, in different circumstances, we now need to invest, invest, invest as a political priority.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I am sorry, but I do not have time to take a second intervention.

Let us not kid ourselves that the money is not there. The money is always there for those who want to pour tarmac in the road-building programme—something that increases our fossil fuel consumption and our climate change emissions. We argued for £100 million a year for the home insulation scheme; that is less than the cost of one mile of the M74 extension that other political parties have crowed about so proudly. Let us not kid ourselves that the money is not there.

Anne McTaggart’s speech, although at times a little halting, made one very important point that nobody else has made so far—that fuel poverty is part of a wider agenda of poverty in our society that has structural causes for which we all bear responsibility. Let none of our committees ever again listen to people such as the notorious tax exile, Jim McColl, demanding a further tax cut. Let us start closing the gap between rich and poor for all of our people, including those who are benefiting at the very top.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I congratulate Jenny Marra on securing this members’ business debate on an issue that is vital for the whole country. We all know of constituents whose lives are severely challenged because of increases in the price of energy. I am a member of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, and at an early meeting of the committee we heard from representatives of the six energy companies. We listened to their attempts to justify what has been happening. With familiar regularity, one energy company increases its price and the others do the same shortly afterwards.

The motion highlights the fact that 900,000 homes are in fuel poverty. Only today, at the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, we heard of the challenges that face Governments in attempting to deal with fuel poverty. With prices increasing, the Scottish Government will always be chasing a moving target in trying to reach its 2016 target. Scotland is a fuel-rich nation; no one in Scotland should be living in fuel poverty. How much could have been done if successive Westminster Governments had not squandered the billions of pounds of revenue from the North Sea since the 1970s? How much of that money could have been invested in housing stock in Scotland? Fuel poverty did not start in 2007; it has always been there. It is just a shame that over the years Labour and the Tories, when they were in power in London, did not do much about it.

Jenny Marra talked about the Scottish Government doing more. Yes, the Scottish Government could do more. Every Government could do more. We need the powers to ensure that we can get the job done.

This morning at the committee we heard about the provision of free insulation. The offer was not fully taken up. Let us think about that—something was being given away free, but not everyone took up the opportunity to get their home fully insulated.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

No, I am sorry. I do not have time.

If people will not take up something that is free, that highlights how difficult things can be for a Scottish Government—whether of the SNP persuasion or the Labour-Lib Dem coalition pre-2007.

On an issue of such importance, I am once again disappointed that Labour cannot rise to the occasion. Time and again in the Parliament, Labour talks about spending more money; yet, in local government, it votes against spending more. In recent years, Labour on Renfrewshire Council voted against the administration’s investment in housing to reach the SHQS, and against the administration’s anti-poverty strategy. Instead of playing party politics, perhaps Labour should acknowledge its hypocrisy and try to bring more powers to this Parliament so that the necessary investment can be made.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I am in my final minute.

Borrowing by local authorities is a good idea. The Scottish Government should have the powers to borrow money—as normal independent nations do. Rhoda Grant mentioned Sweden—a normal independent nation—and that is a good example to follow. I look forward to the day when Scotland can become a normal independent nation.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I am sorry. I am in my final minute.

We have to get the powers to allow us to do much more to eradicate fuel poverty in Scotland.

Photo of Chic Brodie Chic Brodie Scottish National Party

After the debate we had on winter resilience, I wondered whether there was a great danger of mass agreement breaking out. I regret that we have had the carping that we have had, and I really do not understand Patrick Harvie’s point about who is directing the political football. Fuel poverty is far too important an issue for the naked party politics that we have heard on the Scottish Government and the constitution. Although I welcome the debate, I stress the importance of that point.

Fuel poverty is an amalgam of limited incomes, the drive for energy efficiency and fuel costs. We all know the impact that the London-based economic crisis has had on incomes. I would not dare to follow Mike MacKenzie on energy efficiency and housing, which he spoke about so well. What I will do is talk about fuel costs. As a member of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, I confess my personal anger and distress about the subject, on which we must rise above party politics.

As Stuart McMillan said, in June the committee had representatives of the six major energy companies before it. At the end of the meeting, I asked them whether they would work with us on a cross-party, panel basis to reduce and help to eradicate fuel poverty in Scotland. To a woman and a man, they said that they would. Despite the actions of Energy Action Scotland, Consumer Focus Scotland and all the other bodies involved, the fuel companies are giving us straws in the wind. They may already be paying lip service to the fuel poverty forum.

Despite the positive action on funding that has been taken in the present difficult economic situation—the £65 million that the Government will spend on fuel poverty and energy efficiency this year, the £50 million that will be spent over the lifetime of the Parliament on the warm homes fund—

Jenny Marra rose—

No, I will not take any interventions.

In addition, the minister announced further spending of £1.5 million. Despite all that, the energy assistance package and all the other packages, we now face an almost unbelievable challenge. The 900,000 households in poverty in Scotland face an oligopolistic market, in which the remuneration of a senior executive of one energy provider rose by 83 per cent—against the background of the poor and the elderly suffering the pain of sliding into poverty.

As with the banks, successive London Governments have failed to tackle the power and the wealth of the few. As a consequence, the many are suffering. It is time for much more competition in the marketplace. I see Patrick Harvie laughing. If we reduce demand, what does he think that the fuel companies, with all their overheads and capital expenses, will do? They will continue to increase their prices.

Photo of Chic Brodie Chic Brodie Scottish National Party

No, I will not.

It is time for us to look at community energy companies and to see whether we can create a consumer-based mutual to enter the market to compete and to drive down the anticipated fuel rises to which Patrick Harvie referred.

Fuel poverty is a huge issue and we should face it together. The effect is clear. What we must do is root out the causes.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I, too, am willing to congratulate Jenny Marra on securing the debate, although I must say that members’ business debates are intended to be a bit more consensual than her speech indicated. I suggest that in future she should do more homework and get her facts straight. I do not think that anyone in the Labour Party is in a position to criticise the SNP Government when, during the final two years of the Labour Government in London, one Ed Miliband, who was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change at the time, reduced the budget for the English warm front scheme by 50 per cent. We would never do that, either north or south of the border.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

No, I do not have time for interventions at the moment.

Let me give the Labour Party some facts and figures. Fact number 1 is that, by the end of the present spending period, we will be spending well over 40 per cent more on fuel poverty programmes than the previous Lib Dem-Labour Executive did. Fact 2, importantly for fuel poverty, is on our spending on housing. The reality is that we are spending substantially more on the housing programme, too.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Fact 3 is that, unlike Labour and the Liberal Democrats, we are making our programme available first of all to poor families with children under five. They never did. We are making our programmes available to families with disabled children. They never did. We are making our programmes available to people who are terminally ill. They never did.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

From 30 November, we are extending the energy assistance programme to carers, which they never did.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

We will not take any lessons from the Labour Party on what to do on budgets or eligibility for programmes. The reality is that we are doing far, far more to tackle fuel poverty than Labour ever did either north or south of the border.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I am now prepared to take an intervention, but I am spoiled for choice. Let me take Lewis Macdonald.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

I am grateful that the cabinet secretary has finally taken an intervention. I am interested in the claims that he makes. Perhaps he can tell us how the budget for fuel poverty at the end of the spending review will compare with the budget last year.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

It will be 35 per cent higher at the end of the spending review, as I have made absolutely clear. The reality is that, as well as the money that we are spending, we are working closely with Chris Huhne, the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, to ensure that Scotland gets its share of both the green deal money and the energy company obligation money. As we have—

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. It is clear that the figures that the cabinet secretary has quoted back to my colleague Lewis Macdonald are not correct. Is it right for him to be able to mislead the Parliament in that way?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The figures are a matter for the minister.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I will maybe raise a point of order to say that Rhoda Grant’s intervention is incorrect.

The reality is that, on top of what we are doing with the fuel poverty programmes specifically designed to help people who are in fuel poverty and with our housing programme, we are working with the UK Government as best we can to ensure that we get our fair share of the UK programmes.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

In her opening remarks, Jenny Marra mentioned the Scottish fuel poverty forum. Does the minister agree with what it says about energy? It states:

“while it is our remit to work within existing resource levels, it should be recognised that in light of rising energy costs, it is difficult to see how sufficient progress can be made within these constraints.”

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

The major driver of increasing fuel poverty in this country at the moment is the huge energy price increase that the six major suppliers are imposing. There are three influences on the level of fuel poverty at any one time: first is the level of income; second is the condition of the housing; and third is the price that people pay for energy. All the independent reports show clearly that by far the biggest single driver of increasing fuel poverty at the moment, not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom, is the huge increase in energy prices.

As Jamie Hepburn and others mentioned, Ofgem’s figures show that the big six suppliers are increasing their profits per household per annum from £15 to £125. That increase is a multiple of six, and I find it incredible that, in her introductory remarks, Jenny Marra totally discounted the influence of energy prices in determining the level of fuel poverty. Every dog in the street knows that in Scotland and south of the border the single biggest influencer is the increase in energy prices.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I do not have time.

The other important point, as well the amount of money going into different programmes, is the effectiveness of the programmes. As I told the Parliament earlier this month, I have asked the reconvened fuel poverty forum to carry out a comprehensive review of fuel poverty policy in Scotland to identify ways in which we can better focus our resources. We have re-engineered programmes in the past, particularly the energy assistance programme, particularly by extending coverage, as I mentioned. Also, the universal home insulation programme has been vital, not just in extending the number of people who benefit from our fuel poverty programmes but because it has been a major referral point for the energy assistance programme as well.

The energy assistance programme, as members should know, has four major elements, including advice and help for people to move to better tariffs or social tariffs, and positive assistance with insulation and central heating. I have not even had time to mention the boiler scrappage scheme, which is something else that our predecessors never did.

I am proud of our record in dealing with fuel poverty, which compares brilliantly with the total inadequacy and poor record of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I thank all members for their contributions to the debate and—

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

On a point of order, Presiding Officer—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Before I close the meeting, we have a point of order from Patrick Harvie.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I recognise that Rhoda Grant’s earlier point of order related to statements by the minister, which are not a matter for the chair. However, the information that the Scottish Parliament information centre provided to members on the same issue suggests a different state of affairs in relation to the Government’s budget from what the minister suggested. If SPICe has provided us with the wrong information, that would be a serious matter. I doubt that it has done so, but could we ask it to contact the Scottish Government to confirm the source of its figures?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I do not believe that to be a point of order.

Meeting closed at 17:57.