Wera Hobhouse speaks out on fuel poverty

Speaking in a House of Commons debate on fuel poverty on Thursday, Wera Hobhouse, Lib Dem MP for Bath, said no one should have to make the choice between feeding their family or heating their home. The pandemic has made things even worse. People working from home faced an extra £16 a month on energy costs, adding up to £195 a year for those on poor value tariffs. She said the clearest example of the Government’s failure was the scrapping of the green homes grant only five months after it was introduced with only 6% of the budget spent.

No one should have to make the choice between feeding their family or heating their home, yet this is the choice that the 3.2 million households living in fuel poverty face. In Bath and North East Somerset, generally considered an affluent area, over 10% of households are struggling with their fuel bills. We are fortunate enough to have an excellent Citizens Advice, but Citizens Advice cannot replace urgent Government action.

The effects of fuel poverty are heartbreaking, such as needing to wrap up in a duvet in damp conditions with restricted mobility. Existing health conditions, including mental health, deteriorate fast and family life is often under severe pressure. The pandemic has made things even worse. It has created additional financial hardship while increasing household bills, as people were forced to stay at home and wholesale energy prices rose. Research suggests that people working from home added an extra £16 a month on energy costs, adding up to £195 a year for those on poor value tariffs.

We must address fuel poverty not only to end this unjustifiable inequality, but because it could be a major step forward in tackling the climate emergency. All too often fuel poverty goes hand in hand with poor housing, especially poor insulation. Energy inefficient homes are not just bad for the environment, but a huge drain on the household bills of low-income families. Behind the reduction in fuel-poor homes in 2018-19 was the increase to an energy efficiency rating to band C or higher, but the Government are relying only on the energy company obligation and the warm home discount. That is simply not enough.

The Government need to make much more serious efforts to drive the retrofitting of Britain’s old housing stock. We need a coherent plan, and we need action, not words. Where are the training programmes to dramatically build up the skills base we need? Where are the tough energy efficiency and heating regulations? Why do the Government not give more powers to lead on the delivery of the schemes to local authorities, which are in a much better position to support house owners and landlords, and better identify the households living in fuel poverty?

The clearest example of the Government’s failure is the scrapping of the green homes grant only five months after it was introduced. Only 6% of the budget was spent, and only a fraction of the vouchers were given out. Rather than ending the whole scheme as quickly as it was introduced, the Government should have extended the scheme over 10 years, with the clear aim to end fuel poverty and cut greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the decade. With a long-term commitment, the industry would have been able to scale up to deliver this massive task. Knee-jerk actions and short-termism are not just bad for the environment; they are letting down the 3.2 million households that will continue to live in fuel poverty. I urge the Government to reinstate a new net-zero homes grant, but this time with a long-term commitment to end fuel poverty once and for all.

Jamie Stone, Lib Dem MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross also spoke in the debate:

Fuel poverty, boy oh boy, has been an issue for very many years. It is made worse by the electricity distribution charges that are levied by area. As a result, the highlands is disproportionately affected with the highest distribution charges levied anywhere in the UK.

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7 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 11th Jul '21 - 11:34am

    The Scottish Parliament passed an important Fuel Poverty Act in 2019 that set out a clear definition of fuel poverty, clear targets for its reduction and strategies. It makes a distinction between Fuel Poverty and Extreme Fuel Poverty (which would more likely be the condition being referred to in situations where families are faced with the choice of spending on heating or eating.) For most families in fuel poverty, the choice is not between paying heating or eating but between paying for heating or a reasonable standard of living.

  • nigel hunter 11th Jul '21 - 12:38pm

    Fuel Poverty should read not enough to live on. IT IS CALLED POVERTY

  • The HofC briefing paper https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8730/ writes “Fuel poverty can be alleviated by improving a households income (and their ability to pay bills), reducing their fuel costs, and reducing their energy consumption (by improving energy efficiency). To improve a households ability to pay, there are payments and discounts available to certain eligible customers known as the Winter Fuel Payment, Warm Homes Discount, and Cold Weather payments, designed to help potentially vulnerable customers more easily pay their bills. To reduce fuel costs, the UK Government have introduced an energy tariff cap, though switching supplier can still lead to lower tariffs. Energy efficiency is supported through the Energy Company Obligation, which requires energy suppliers to install energy efficiency measures in fuel poor, vulnerable or low income homes. ”
    As Wera writes these measures are unlikely to be sufficient for many and rightly points out “The Government need to make much more serious efforts to drive the retrofitting of Britain’s old housing stock.” and asks “Where are the training programmes to dramatically build up the skills base we need?” A salient point as we prepare for higher unemployment when the furlough schemes are wound down.

  • Katharine Pindar 11th Jul '21 - 7:08pm

    Great to see two of our MPs speaking out on how excessive bills for necessary heating increase poverty in so many households. Moreover, when colder weather comes, higher heating bills will hit many of the poorest people again. And in September the £20 extra on Universal Credit is to be withdrawn. That people have to work to stave off poverty is the cruel continuing mantra of this government. It takes no heed of disabled people, seriously ill people, single mothers at home with small children, the people who need reskilling to have any chance of paid work, or the unpaid carers at home. They will all just get poorer. Denouncing poverty and demanding action on it ought to be the number one priority for our party, and it will be a compelling need very soon.

  • Helen Dudden 11th Jul '21 - 10:06pm

    Some homes were never updated to the Decent Homes levels as suggested.
    If there is to be a reduction in carbon footprints, that means better heating in all homes.
    Very recently ITV were looking into the problems with poor maintenance and run down properties.
    I did live in a Georgian property in Bath that I rented from a Social Housing landlord, ice on the inside of the windows was common in the winter. I must admit it must have been a struggle to even try to maintain these homes. Damp was a large problem, as with the cold.
    I know someone who is living in one of the new homes at Mulberry Park, what they are paying now with the solar panels and upgraded heating systems is much less. It was costing around £60 a week or more as the debt on the energy usage rose. What happens when you have small children and its so difficult to even keep one room warm.
    Damp becomes a problem as well as cold, lack of money for food and just living.
    I feel we need more insight on what the problems are, and how best to solve them at a more achievable level.

  • Steve Trevethan 12th Jul '21 - 8:51am

    Might it help if the L.D. Party were to campaign energetically for data on fuel poverty and food bank use to be included with the usual set of economic indicators such as the stock market?

  • Peter Martin 12th Jul '21 - 9:58am

    Nigel Hunter makes a valid point. What is the difference between fuel poverty and general poverty? Do we know of any examples of anyone who can afford to maintain an otherwise reasonably good standard of living but can’t afford the gas bill?

    It strikes me that many Lib Dems prefer to talk, piecemeal, about fuel poverty, housing poverty, health inequality, or whatever, because they don’t like the socialist connotations of addressing the issues of general inequality and poverty.

    “People working from home faced an extra £16 a month on energy costs …”

    Generally speaking, those who are working from home are the lucky ones- even if it does cost £4 extra per week in gas and electricity. They would likely be spending much more on travel costs in just one day if their normal routine had continued.

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