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Why the Government can’t turn its back on the scourge of fuel poverty

ImageIn just five years legislation should consign fuel poverty to history. But will the public funds be made available for this commitment to be honoured? And will the Government be in breach of the law it championed?

There is a definite ranking order for judging the status of political commitments. Least important is an off-the-cuff remark from a junior minister, answering questions in a village hall. Public policy is unlikely to alter one jot in consequence. Next is a comment in parliament by the same minister. Again, the leviathan of state will take some persuading to change. Ditto even from Cabinet ministers. If the same commitment appears in a formal government White Paper, that begins to get serious. Include it in a manifesto, and then you are in business. Probably.

But the fact is that, in each of these cases, the politicians – or more likely, the civil servants behind them – will normally have left themselves just sufficient wiggle room. Just in case anything goes wrong. There is one exception to this rule.

 Four million out of fuel poverty

Acts of Parliament are that exception. They are the law of the land. Which not only do humble citizens have to obey. So also do governments.

Which is why the words of the Warm Homes & Energy Conservation Act 2000 are engraved on the hearts of those concerned with finally removing the scourge of fuel poverty from the land. Because effectively what that Act requires is that, by 2011, every single vulnerable household must be removed from fuel poverty. Not some, not many. But all four million of them.

The definition of fuel poverty is stark. It covers any household where more than 10% of disposable income – after housing benefits – has to be spent just keeping warm.

Put that into perspective: even with recent price rises, every reader of EiBI will be spending way less than 5% of disposable income on fuel – hopefully, far less because they will be practicing at home what they preach at work.

The present energy minister Malcolm Wicks first entered the public stage 20 years ago as the author of “Old and Cold”, a seminal publication which helped make people aware of the appalling state of our housing stock. Which made sure the phrase “fuel poverty” entered the political lexicon.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the charity NEA led the campaign to abolish fuel poverty. Not that anybody sane was ever in favour of continuing with fuel poverty. It is just that, to remove households from such deprivation, requires not just a handout at Christmas to help pay the bills. But a whole lot of expensive remedial work upon the buildings themselves, improving the efficiency of the homes of low income families.

This is genuinely an all-party issue. It is not coincidental that it was a Conservative MP (David Amess) who piloted that Act onto the statute book in 2000. Nor that his co-sponsors were LibDems and nationalists as well as Labour MPs. Nor that it was John Prescott, as deputy prime minister, who put flesh on the Act’s requirements.

Because that date when fuel poverty must be abolished does not appear in the actual Act of Parliament. That simply mandates government to set a timetable. And this the DPM did – with a flourish. And, it has to be recalled, to great applause.

Consequently it follows that the government is legally required to ensure that it puts in place schemes that will deliver, on time, abolition of fuel poverty. Including the requisite funds.

The timetable can of course be altered. But not at a flick of a ministerial pen. Nor via some obscure Parliamentary manoeuvre. But only after a full public consultation exercise, in which the intention to resile on the commitment is made fully public. Followed by detailed Parliamentary scrutiny of the new timetable. Not a five minute exercise. Nor one conducive with winning many friends.

Present funding is woefully inadequate

The reason why anybody should be even surreptitiously considering such a manoeuvre is plain. The government’s own Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, set up after the 2000 Act, has made it clear in annual report after annual report.

Present funding for remedial schemes for homes in fuel poverty is woefully inadequate. A problem augmented by the knowledge that higher fuel prices are inevitably leading to more rather than less households “qualifying” as fuel poor.

The Treasury is even now negotiating spending levels for public programmes, for the final three years up to 2011. In other words, up to the time when fuel poverty must be eliminated, by law, in every vulnerable home.

The law requires that the remedial programmes are so funded, that a reasonable person could conclude that all the relevant homes can be sufficiently improved by 2011, in order that there is no chance of anybody suffering from fuel poverty within them.

Jointly responsible for delivering compliance with the 2000 Act are the environment minister Ian Pearson – and the energy minister. The same Malcolm Wicks who first turned fuel poverty into a live political issue.

It would surely be the cruellest of ironies were it to be he of all people who had to face the judgement from the courts, that government was in breach of the very law it had passed. And instructed to find the necessary funds to comply.






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