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The Research Brief: Winter is coming

Your weekly dose of policy thinking.

By Spotlight

Welcome to the Research Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, brings you the pick of recent publications from the think tank, charity, government and NGO world. See more editions here.

What are we talking about this week? This week we’re Preparing for the Winter with a new report from the Commons’ Energy Security and Net Zero Committee. It looks at how well prepared the UK is for the oncoming storm of cold weather and fuel prices that refuse to come down, and how well we have learned the lessons of last year’s dismal winter. There are several recommendations within the report that the committee hopes the government will follow before the cold sets in: but only time will tell.

What’s this committee? The Energy Security and Net Zero Committee is a cross-party parliamentary select committee made up of 11 MPs and chaired by the independent MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar in Scotland, Angus Brendan MacNeil. After a fiery inquiry, featuring a particularly dramatic session in which the boss of British Gas was asked by the committee member Vicky Ford how he sleeps at night, the committee has produced a 17-page report, published last week. The committee’s main remit is to scrutinise the work of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, currently led by Claire Coutinho. A newbie in the role, Coutinho replaced Grant Shapps in September and cited her lack of time in the role as the reason for her refusal to appear before the inquiry that led to this report.

So, what happened last year? The winter of 2022 was particularly bleak. As the report points out, last year there were 4,706 excess deaths caused by residents living in cold, damp homes in the UK, up from 3,186 in the winter of 2021. It also saw energy bills rising to “unprecedented levels”, which the report says were linked to a global spike in wholesale oil and gas prices coming out of lockdown and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many suppliers went out of business in the UK – 29 to be precise – which meant prices only shot up further. (The average bill was up by 178 per cent.) As a result, many households felt the squeeze, and with temperatures dropping, some even turned to dangerous measures to avoid pushing their energy bills up including cooking food on the BBQ or using their oven to heat their home.

Wow, that is bleak. Didn’t the government do something about it? They did. There was a £2,500 cap on energy costs, an energy bills support scheme, and a warm homes discount. But as the report states, not all this support ended up going to where it was supposed to. National Energy Action told the committee that a total of £440m was returned to the Treasury this year which had been intended for energy support last year.

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That’s not good. What needs to happen in 2023 then? Well, the committee recommends that the government prioritises those households who missed out on support last year and ensure they receive their intended payment with immediate effect. It has also called for the warm homes discount to be extended to those on low incomes and those living in fuel poverty, rather than being on a first-come-first-served basis as it was in 2022. The Energy Security and Net Zero Committee’s MPs have also called for a form of social tariff to prevent vulnerable households from being cut off from their energy supplies.

Any other recommendations for 2023? Yes, plenty! The committee’s report is critical of the current cold weather payment, which it describes as “outdated” and “old-fashioned”. They have called on the government to make it applicable on a daily rate after one to three days of weather below freezing, to be based on minimum rather than average temperature, and to be provided ahead of a cold spell.

The committee also said councils should be facilitated to share best practice in delivering the household support fund, Ofgem should ensure vulnerable customers are given more time, attention, and empathy by their energy suppliers. Towards the end of the report, MPs write that the government should engage with Ofgem to improve consumer standards and energy companies’ charging structure. Finally, MPs highlight the importance of smart meters as a way of “incentivising good energy use”. They suggest energy companies offer consumers financial incentives to install their own smart meter, with those living in fuel poverty given priority over others.

Will any of this happen? It depends. The government currently seems to have other things on its mind such as the roll back of its net zero targets and ending the so-called war on motorists. The committee will now await a government response to its report, so we should have a clearer idea of whether they’ve taken any of this on board then.

In a sentence? Consumers suffered last winter due to rising energy costs, but there are several things the government could do to stop this happening again.

Read the full report from the Energy Security and Net Zero Committee here.

[See also: Rosebank has exposed contradictions on the centre left]

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