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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage