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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle