HC Deb 17 June 1999 vol 333 cc546-8
5. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

If he will make a statement on the significance that energy policy has in the Government's social exclusion agenda. [86495]

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

Given that more than 5 million households in the United Kingdom are spending over 10 per cent. of their incomes on fuel bills, fuel poverty is a serious matter. It is a crucial aspect of the social exclusion agenda, and we are tackling it. I had a meeting with the industry on 18 May to press it to take action, and to develop and pool ideas for best practice. I also pressed the regulator to present a revised social action plan to deal with fuel poverty, so that all consumers—not just those who have access to good deals by means of direct debit—benefit from competition.

Mr. Chapman

Is my hon. Friend aware that Scottish Power and MANWEB—the Merseyside and North-West electricity board—have introduced pilot schemes, along with the Energy Action Grants Agency, to help low-income consumers to spread their payments and weatherproof their bills? Those organisations have distributed more than 100,000 low-energy light bulbs through Age Concern. Surely that is a serious contribution to the social exclusion agenda.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that any legislation that is introduced places a burden on the regulator to ensure that the interests of low-income consumers are promoted and protected?

Mr. Battle

I know of the scheme to which my hon. Friend refers. It includes not only specific packages for low-income families, but advice on benefits, budgetary advice and the supply of fuel on terms that give such families an extra deal: lower bills, along with fixed weekly payments at an agreed rate. That is a very good offer.

If those companies can do this, why cannot others? I know that Centrica and Help the Aged, along with the gas industry, have launched a two-year plan to combat fuel poverty, but we need to widen that best practice network. In our White Paper "A Fair Deal for Consumers", we announced that we would include in any Bill on energy regulation statutory guidance for the regulator on fuel poverty, social obligation and environmental responsibilities. We may produce such a Bill in early autumn; at this stage, I merely ask the companies to get together, to anticipate the legislation and to act now. If they do so, regulation may be lighter. Indeed, ultimately we may not need it. Companies should exercise common sense in tackling fuel poverty, rather than dismissing the poor.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

One of the most dramatic ways in which to be excluded from society is to be made unemployed. Ninety-seven per cent. of goods in rural areas are transported by diesel-powered vans and lorries, and haulage businesses throughout the country are making workers redundant because of the Government's energy policies. When will they wake up to the real damage being done to real people on the ground?

Mr. Battle

I know that the main question is on fuel poverty, but I do not mind widening the debate to a discussion of social exclusion because I remember when we were losing a company every three minutes under the Tories. I remember unemployment escalating then, not only in urban but in rural areas. A total of 400,000 new jobs have been delivered under our Government. We have a new deal to put people back into work that reaches all Britain. The hon. Gentleman's party set up the regulation mechanism for gas and electricity, according to which only price mattered. I look forward to Conservative Members' support when we introduce a Bill on energy which acknowledges that tackling fuel poverty and recognising environmental responsibilities are important to the generation of new jobs and combating social exclusion.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I congratulate the Government on the work done so far on fuel poverty, but does the Minister agree that one of its key causes is the standing charge, because it is inevitable that low-income households pay disproportionately more for their gas and electricity than the rest of the population? Will he assure the House that he will continue to press the regulator to tackle the inequities of that system?

Mr. Battle

I agree with my hon. Friend about standing charges. He may know that we have already asked the regulator to examine, for example, the wide regional variations in charges. Some companies do not have a standing charge, but low-volume customers can pay a high price.

Tackling fuel poverty is complex, because it involves investing in homes to ensure that they are energy-efficient. Therefore, the energy and resources that we are putting into energy-efficiency schemes—for example, home improvement schemes—should match action to reduce fuel bills for poorer consumers.

It is unnecessary and unacceptable that people should die from cold—what is euphemistically referred to as excess winter deaths. I do not want that to appear on death certificates in the 21st century. Our combined actions can do something to tackle that.

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