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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.