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 Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.