Feeling the heat (or not)

A fifth of UK households suffer fuel poverty while energy giants cash in.

Last month, secretary of state for energy and climate change Chris Huhne issued the government's latest energy report. The Electricity Market Reform (EMR) white paper makes clear how keen the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to promote investment in gas, despite the fact that the fossil fuel's prices are currently sky-rocketing.

In the same week, DECC published its annual fuel poverty report. This highlights the significant rise in fuel poverty between 2008 and 2009 (most recent figures), with DECC predicting that figures for 2010 and 2011 will have increased further due to ongoing rises in energy costs.

The schism between the two government reports is striking and signals a worrying trend in the British energy market that sees energy corporations taking advantage of the rise in wholesale gas prices to exploit the British consumer to an unprecedented degree.

A household is defined as fuel poor if it spends more than ten per cent of its income on fuel to maintain adequate levels of warmth. Since 2003, soaring gas and electricity prices have been too great to be offset by rising incomes or energy efficiency measures, leading to year-on-year growth in fuel poverty (Fig. 1). In 2009, the number of fuel poor households in the UK was approximately 5.5 million, a rise of around one million from the previous year. In other words, more than a fifth of all UK households are now living in fuel poverty.

Figure 1 - Fuel poverty in the UK, all households and vulnerable, 1996 to 2009

A

Source: DECC Fuel Poverty Statistics 2011

Where gas is concerned, energy firms have blamed enormous price increases on the 30 per cent rise in wholesale cost. However, consumer price rises go far beyond this. Wholesale costs are nowhere near their 2008 peak yet consumer prices are at an all-time high. Energy consumers are therefore being exploited by energy firms at a time when they most crucially require support.

Today, E.ON became the fourth of the six major energy firms to announce increases in its gas and electricity prices, the second rise this year for the company. Scottish & Southern, British Gas and Scottish Power have already announced further price rises.

One of the most worrying outcomes is the impact that this is having on the elderly. Almost 50 per cent of those living in fuel poverty are over 60. Last December, George Monbiot underlined the severity of the UK's failure to address this disgraceful problem:

Although we usually have one of the smallest differences between winter and summer temperatures at these latitudes, we also have one of the highest levels of excess winter deaths. Roughly twice as many people, per capita, die here than in Scandanavia and other parts of northern Europe, though our winters are typically milder. Even Siberia has lower levels of excess winter deaths than we do. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people a year are hastened to the grave by the cold here - this winter it could be much worse.

More widely, the majority of households experiencing fuel poverty are statistically "vulnerable", in other words they contain the elderly, children or someone who is disabled or has a long term illness. In England, over 70 per cent of households are classified as such.

There are several steps that must be taken to address the escalating problem of fuel poverty. For a start, it is fundamental that energy regulator Ofgem starts to assert itself in the face of criminal price hikes. With one of the least regulated energy markets in the developed world, very little will change until the big six are brought under much tighter control.

Investment in energy efficiency measures and implementation of green energy programmes are likewise going to be fundamental to addressing the longer-term energy crisis, particularly in a world needing to get to grips rapidly with climate change and diminishing natural resources.
The energy giants currently have what seems like free reign to do as they please. It's time to tell E.ON and co. to F.OFF.

Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley

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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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