Baroness Donaghy: Immediate action required to protect our most vulnerable from the coming winter

Posted On: 
19th October 2017

The Government's Energy Price Cap will fail to tackle directly the needs of those in fuel poverty, says Baroness Donaghy.

The UK is 14th out of 16 in the league table on fuel poverty in Western Europe.
Credit: 
PA Images

The phrase "fuel poverty" has an old fashioned ring to it, conjuring up images of families huddling round one bar of an electric fire.  Fuel poverty, however, is very much alive and deadly.

Four million households (15%of the total) in the U.K. Are suffering fuel poverty, defined as spending more than 10% of income on fuel. This is just the tip of the iceberg as many older or infirm people need extra heating and they do not appear in the statistics.

70% of domestic customers of the Big Six companies are on expensive standard tariffs and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) found that those on lower incomes, or who live in rented accommodation or are over 65 are less likely to changes supplier or consider changing supplier than others.  These are the very groups most likely to be suffering fuel poverty.

For the first time in thirty years England is now the only U.K nation without a government funded energy efficiency programme and it is estimated that the National Health Service currently spends over 1.36 billion per year treating cold home related illnesses.  At the same time a CMA investigation found that customers had been overcharged on their gas and electricity bills by £2 billion in 2015.

The Government completely missed its legal target to end fuel poverty by 2016 as set out in the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act of 2001.  Instead it has created a new target to be achieved by 2030.  Unless action is taken even this target will be missed by 80 years!  Funding for insulating cold homes has been cut by 80% and yet an estimated two million children are living in cold homes.  The children are twice as likely to develop asthma and adolescents are five times more likely to develop mental health issues. Age UK has published research to show that 3 million people aged 65 plus in the U.K. Say they are worried about staying warm in their homes in winter and one in five homes occupied by older people in England fail the decent homes standard.  Without interventions to tackle the cold homes crisis the charity National Energy Action (NEA) estimates a cumulative effect of 125,000 premature deaths in the next 15 years.  Is the rest of Western Europe experiencing this problem?  The UK is 14th out of 16 in the league table on fuel poverty in Western Europe.

The Government's recent announcement of an Energy Price Cap draft Bill [Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill] is an attempt to deal with a crisis where, in its own words, "markets are not working for all consumers".  Whether it will work or not remains to be seen but it is a modest step to deal with the lack of competitiveness in the total domestic energy market.  It fails to tackle directly the needs of those in fuel poverty.  Some action is desperately needed if we are to protect our most vulnerable from the coming winter.  "Fuel Poverty" might sound old fashioned but its impact today is a pitiless as ever.

Baroness Donaghy is a Labour peer in the House of Lords