How David Cameron's failure on energy bills is hitting households

While big energy companies are reaping billions in profits, millions of vulnerable households are being pushed deeper into fuel poverty.

Heating or eating? That’s the choice too many families are being faced with today – meeting the soaring cost of keeping their homes warm or putting food on the table. Under this Tory-led government, life for ordinary people is getting harder, with real wages falling in 36 of the 37 months since David Cameron entered Downing Street.

It amounts to nothing less than a crisis in living standards where the rising cost of energy is many households’ chief financial headache. Since 2010, the average family energy bill has shot up by more than £300 and now stands at a whopping £1,400 per year.

Now it has been revealed that millions of vulnerable households are being pushed even deeper into fuel poverty. Figures from the government’s own Fuel Poverty Report – quietly slipped out in the middle of summer recess – show that the fuel poverty gap is expected to increase by £200m between 2011 and 2013. That means that the distance between people’s fuel bills and what they can afford to pay is growing wider. On average the gap is currently £438 and expected to increase to £494. In 2003 it was £248.

This jump is just the latest evidence of the Prime Minister’s failure to stand up for hard-pressed bill payers and get tough with the big energy companies. The news comes hot on the heels of Labour revelations that the energy giants are reaping much greater profits under David Cameron. In 2009, the UK’s big six energy companies turned a profit of just over £2bn. By 2012, that had rocketed to £4bn. Added together, Britain’s six largest energy firms have enjoyed a windfall of £3.3bn in additional profits over the last three years. That’s £3.3bn on top of the profits they were already making.

But while profits climb, this government has scandalously slashed support for people struggling to keep their homes warm in winter. While millionaires are enjoying a huge tax cut, help for people in fuel poverty has halved.

Many of the schemes that the last Labour government used to help achieve a substantial reduction in fuel poverty have been discontinued. The ending of the Warm Front scheme, in particular, means this is the first administration since the 1970s not to have a government-funded energy efficiency scheme to help the fuel poor. And just a few weeks ago, ministers announced they would be abandoning Labour’s target to abolish fuel poverty altogether by 2016. The decision follows a review by Professor John Hills, which has proposed a new way to measure how many people are fuel poor. But the government must not be allowed to get away with using a new fuel poverty definition as cover for cutting support for people most in need.

Neither should a redefinition distract from very real concerns about the government’s two flagship schemes to improve home energy efficiency – the Green Deal and the Energy Company Obligation (ECO). Ultimately, the best way to aid people struggling with their gas and electricity costs is by reducing the amount of energy they use in the first place.

But as of July, only 36 people have signed on the dotted line for a Green Deal package so far. Meanwhile, the government estimates the ECO will lift 250,000 households out of fuel poverty over the next 10 years. That’s 50,000 fewer than fell into fuel poverty last winter alone. What’s more, up to 60% of the ECO funding available could end up going to households who can already afford to pay, rather than those most in need. That’s why Labour has said that support should go to people in fuel poverty before those who can afford to do it themselves.

The government needs to get its priorities right. The most recent statistics show the UK suffered 24,000 excess winter deaths in 2011/12. According to the World Health Organisation, as many as 30% of winter deaths in Europe may be caused by people living in homes that are too cold. Fuel poverty isn’t something that can be ignored.

As summer slowly gives way to autumn and warnings of more energy price hikes this winter, it’s clearer than ever that Britain needs a One Nation Labour government. We need real reform of the energy market and action to help those who will struggle to keep warm this winter.

That will only be possible if we break the dominance of the energy giants. Only a tough new regulator with the power to force energy companies to pass on savings to consumers will protect the public from being ripped off. David Cameron has had over three years to get consumers the fair deal they deserve. It’s time he decided whose side he is on. 

David Cameron speaks at the Clean Energy Ministerial Conference alongside his Energy Secretary Ed Davey on April 26, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Luciana Berger is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree and Shadow Minister for Energy & Climate Change.

Photo: Getty
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.