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


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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.