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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.