HL Deb 25 May 1999 vol 601 cc772-4

2.45 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their plans for dealing with fuel poverty.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government have already cut VAT on fuel, which the previous government imposed; increased the winter fuel payment for pensioner households from £20 to £100; and allocated an additional £150 million to fuel poverty programmes in the comprehensive spending review. On 11th May, the Deputy Prime Minister detailed the Government's proposals to tackle poor home energy efficiency more effectively through the New Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, which will move households substantially out of fuel poverty.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, as someone who for many years has been involved in the charity NEA, which has campaigned for warmer homes particularly for the elderly on low incomes, I very much welcome the paper issued by the Government on fuel poverty and on the allocation of additional funds to deal with this important social issue.

I also welcome the fact that it has been recognised that a large part of the problem arises in the private rented and owner-occupied sectors. In view of the fact that the proposed additional assistance will be limited to those receiving qualifying social benefits, will the Government consider those who are marginally outside the benefit area, many of whom still suffer from a substantial degree of fuel poverty? That would be recognised as a substantial additional benefit in the Government's present proposals.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am aware of and pay tribute to the noble Lord's contribution in this field. He will recognise that we are attempting to target the households in most difficulty as regards fuel poverty. For example, 3.7 million pensioners qualify under this proposition and they are the worst cases. Other pensioners who are not in receipt of benefit will have benefited from the winter fuel payments and we must recognise that some prioritisation is necessary. However, the document is subject to consultation and I have no doubt that the points to which the noble Lord referred can be made if they are submitted to the Government by 16th July.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is it not a fact that often people on the margin of income are being deprived of fuel because of the behaviour of the gas and electricity companies, which give large discounts to those who are well off, and charge a premium, particularly to those paying through a slot meter, to those who are not well off? Cannot something be done to redress the balance, because it would certainly help those on the margin of income and perhaps those who are fuel-poor, too?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is something in what my noble friend says. The regulation of utility pricing systems exists under the present regimes. Proposals for changing such regimes are under consideration by my colleagues at the DTI. It may well be that the new regulation system will allow better recognition of fuel poverty in the way in which the utilities treat their customers, particularly those on lower incomes with a low level of usage.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, like my noble friend I welcome the extension of the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme. Can the Minister clarify an anomaly about which many noble Lords have expressed concern, both to him and to others? Under the old scheme, people who were eligible some years ago for fairly small grants for small amounts of insulation—perhaps just draught-proofing—were then not eligible for the larger grants which later came into being. We are now giving grants for cavity wall insulation and double glazing. How does the Minister see that situation developing?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I shall take advice on that matter. Under the new system the grants for substantial insulation or other measures to save fuel usage will be in a sense a "one-off", although there are leasing arrangements, as the noble Baroness will know. As regards those who received small payments at an earlier stage under the pre-existing scheme, perhaps the noble Baroness would allow me to write to her on that matter.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the initiative being taken by an organisation called Equigas to meet precisely the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon? If so, are the Government in a position to make that opportunity better known to those on low incomes whose consumption of fuel is relatively small and who at present are disadvantaged by the pricing structure?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am, in general terms, aware of that initiative. It should, indeed, enjoy wider publicity. However, it will not deal with all the situations to which my noble friend Lord Stoddart referred.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, it is an unfortunate fact that there is a coincidence between fuel poverty and inefficient energy use of buildings. Can the Minister give any indication of how long it will take under the existing regime, which I acknowledge is improved, before energy inefficient houses have all been improved?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the short answer is "no". Clearly, we shall need to assess the priorities and ensure that they are determined by households and household circumstances rather than buildings and building circumstances. As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, pointed out, some of the worst situations are within the private rented sector and, indeed, the owner-occupied sector. It is therefore slightly more difficult than with social housing or local authority housing to estimate how long such improvements will take. We have provided substantial additional funds on a different front for local authority housing and for housing associations. I am afraid that I cannot at present give an overall figure, as the noble Lord requested. I shall see whether I can do so and write to him.