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When it comes to energy compliance Britannia waives the rules

ImageThe forthcoming Climate Change Bill is the second piece of energy legislation with legally binding targets. But will the Government comply with its own law? The omens are not good if its record on fuel poverty is examined

“We will shortly be legislating a Climate Change Bill, to become the first country in the world to set a legally binding timetable for becoming a low carbon economy ” (David Miliband, Foreign Secretary). As this Bill makes its way onto the statute book, it is a proud boast you will hear from ministers many, many times.

This is a country which has always paid obeisance to the importance of the overarching importance of the law. Unlike Johnny Foreigner, we pride ourselves upon the belief that we implement purposefully and in full every directive that is agreed within the European Union, every law that is on the statute book. That is even true of historic legislation introduced by governments of other political persuasions. But it is surely particularly true, if enacted by the political party still in power.

There is no doubt that the government does feel a bit vulnerable regarding its actual record of delivery regarding the battle against climate change. Certainly the UK is one of the (growing) number of countries where emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, are lower than they were in the magic year of 1990. Which, for not altogether logical reasons, is the agreed base year for such calculations throughout the world.

UK emissions are on the rise

It is lucky the chosen year is not, say, 1997, when the Blair government came to power, promising to lower carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010. Because the truth is that in the interim ten years, annual UK emissions have not fallen at all. Indeed they have risen, from 149 to 156 million tons of carbon.

Mindful of this inconvenient truth regarding its actual lack of success, the government is effectively acknowledging that merely stating a political objective in a manifesto – the 20% reduction target appeared in 1997, in 2001, again in 2005 – is insufficient to retain credibility. Apparently, only by turning a specific reduction target into an absolute legal commitment can we be positive that it will happen. Only that way will all government departments truly become engaged. Only by doing so can we have confidence that the world leadership on climate change abatement our government craves retains any credibility.

The Law of the Land is always paramount. Government will surely strain every sinew to ensure it does everything to ensure it is obeyed.

So we now have complete certainty that all the energy, hence carbon, savings promised will be delivered? I regret that sadly the answer is: not on recent experience.

Back in 2001 the government published its timetable to eliminate fuel poverty in every household (fuel poverty is defined as needing to spend more than 10% of disposable income after housing benefits keeping warm). The timetable was not created as a political gesture. Or even just a “manifesto commitment”. It was required under the Warm Homes & Energy Conservation Act 2000. Legislation passed three years into the Blair government.

That timetable stated that every vulnerable household in England would be removed from fuel poverty by 2010. We are now two years away from that date. The latest official estimate is that there are still around 4 million households in fuel poverty. And with natural gas prices climbing, there is every likelihood that more could yet fall into this category over the next 24 months, unless purposeful steps are taken to improve the energy performance of the actual buildings in which such households live.

Inadequacy of fuel poverty resources

In 2001, complying with the Act, the government created a formal advisory group, with membership drawn from outside government, but with a secretariat provided jointly by the industry and the environment departments.

Each year, this Fuel Poverty Advisory Group has assessed progress. In recent years, its annual report has stated, with increasing urgency, concern at the inadequacy of the resources devoted to achieving the government’s statutory objective: eliminating fuel poverty in every vulnerable English home by 2010. Last year’s report stated that the very minimum required, for the Government not to breach its own law, was a continuation for the next three years of the current budget for the main refurbishment programme, Warm Front. Those final three years cover the full period up to March 2011, up to and beyond the legal deadline.

Retaining the budget over the three years would have required an allocation of around £1,060 million. Just before Christmas, the government slipped out an oblique announcement, which eventually revealed that the actual three year budget would be just £810 million. Some one-quarter of a billion pounds less than its own statutory advisory group deems the minimum necessary. At the same time, official objectives ceased mentioning “elimination” of fuel poverty, in favour of mere “amelioration”.

The fuel poverty target was the first ever legally binding energy-related target this government has taken on. The Climate Change Bill will contain the second. This cynical precedent makes it all too easy for sceptics to scoff at its’ credibility. And therefore that of its progenitors, the UK government.

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