In their consideration of the Energy Select Committee report on Energy Prices, Profits and Fuel Poverty (published 29 July), the media focused on the opacity of the energy companies’ accounts, the lack of transparency, and the apparent weakness of the Regulator, Ofgem, in looking after consumers’ interests.
But the media failed to comment on the trenchant observations made by the Committee on fuel poverty. Here, the Government came in for a lot of flak. The Committee found it disappointing that so much of Government fuel poverty policy centres on short term help with bills when improving the thermal efficiency of the UK housing stock should be the priority. It commented on the hiatus in fuel poverty policy whilst thrashing out a new definition and a new approach, and observed that policy has effectively been frozen at a time when energy price rises have made energy costs increasingly unaffordable for vulnerable and low income households.
The old fuel poverty target had obviously failed to drive policy effectively. In England however, the main Government programme, Warm Front, has been closed, and the challenge of improving the thermal efficiency of housing has been entirely out-sourced to the energy companies. The Committee regretted the present lack of any tax-funded programme, and described as problematic the increasing use of levies on energy bills to fund this work – since it is likely to hit hardest those least able to pay. It also noted that public funding is less regressive than levies in this respect.
The lack of public trust and confidence in the energy companies about their prices spilled over into their involvement with energy efficiency programmes. The Committee felt that energy companies were not the best agent for the delivery of fuel poverty programmes, and recommended that the Government should consider how to maximise the involvement of councils, the voluntary sector and other trusted intermediaries.
This adds up to a fairly clear vote of no confidence in fuel poverty policy, and also adds weight to the calls made by a range of fuel poverty campaigners. There needs to be a tax-funded scheme (and there are carbon taxes in place – and for which we all pay as well through our bills – which could provide the revenue). The price structure is also perverse, charging more for the first units of consumption and less for higher volumes of energy. Local government needs tools to play a part, and bring its knowledge and local links into play. More transparency over energy bills will help, but will not keep people warm and well in winter. The Committee deserves plaudits for its powerful endorsement of these plain but practical policies.
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