HL Deb 28 February 2005 vol 670 cc4-6

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Ezra and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what has been the effect of rising energy prices on the level of fuel poverty.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, analysis of the effects of changes in energy prices and of incomes suggests that the number of vulnerable households in fuel poverty could rise overall by up to 200,000 in England between 2003 and 2005. That estimate does not take account of improvements in the energy efficiency of the housing stock and should be seen in the context of the substantial reduction between 1996 and 2002 when the number of vulnerable fuel-poor households in England fell by 1.8 million.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, although his figures seem to be slightly lower than those I have estimated on the index devised by the DTI. On that index, a total of nearly 3 million people would be in fuel poverty by the end of 2005 if prices continue to rise in the estimated way; that is, by about 10 per cent on 2003 prices.

In those circumstances, should not additional measures be taken through the Warm Front programme and in other ways to offset this substantial increase in fuel poverty, bearing in mind that the UK still suffers from the highest excess mortality rate in western Europe due to cold-related illnesses?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, any difference in figures is not a difference of opinion between ourselves and the DTI: we are at one on this matter. There is a difference between UK and England figures. I was quoting the England figures for vulnerable households.

As to doing more, the noble Baroness is absolutely right: we need to do more and more has been set in train. The Warm Front programme is being substantially expanded with additional resources allocated through this spending round by the Treasury. We can now provide central heating for all eligible households. We have increased the level of the grant and better targeted the early activity of Warm Front.

On the income side of the equation, the providers of Warm Front are also engaging in benefit checks. There is, as the noble Baroness is aware, a higher target for the energy efficiency commitment, which also has a benefit for fuel poverty.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the poorest pensioners are the most likely to suffer from fuel poverty? Well over 1.5 million pensioners do not claim the pension credit to which they are entitled. What are the Government going to do about that?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I have just said, the providers of Warm Front will supplement the efforts of the DWP to identify and improve the take-up of benefit. The noble Lord is correct to say that pensioners are among the most vulnerable, although other households are also vulnerable in this respect. The gearing of Warm Front's activity and that under the energy efficiency commitment and the improvements in social housing take account of the fact that pensioners are more likely to be found in the categories identified in those programmes.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, will my noble friend remind the House which party put VAT on fuel? Will he also explain why, when there are adequate supplies of gas—evidence that some supplies are being held back—the price has rocketed to an extent that makes BP's and other big companies' profits look obscene?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the economists will give us a number of reasons for the rise in gas prices, including the slightly odd link to oil prices. The fact that we are moving from being a net exporter to a net importer of gas means that there is some pressure in the short term on gas prices, although the belief is that gas prices will come down in subsequent years.

With regard to my noble friend's first question, the Conservative Party imposed VAT on fuel. There was a point—perhaps noble Lords opposite would like to clarify this—when the Conservative Party was in favour of abolishing the Warm Front programme, which has done so much to reduce fuel poverty among vulnerable households.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

My Lords, given the number of wind farms in Scotland, with higher generating prices reflected in higher tariffs, how do the Government propose to protect the Scots from fuel poverty?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Scots have a strong and active programme for tackling fuel poverty themselves. Fuel poverty measures are a devolved matter. As for the noble Lord's question on wind farms, the Government are clearly committed to achieving 10 per cent of our energy generated by renewable energies of all sorts by 2010. Wind farms in Scotland and elsewhere will make a significant contribution towards that total and that is taken account of in our assessment of future energy prices.

Lord Barnett

My Lords—

Baroness Greengross

My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, let us hear from the Cross Benches.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, does the Minister concede that it is now time for us to have a national strategy to stop the dreadful number of cold-related deaths every winter? That strategy should measure the number of people who die and ensure that the targets are not set according to means but simply reflect the number of people who die each winter, along the lines of the French strategy set up when half the number of people who die each year in this country every year died as a result of the heat a couple of summers ago. The deaths are a disgrace and must be tackled as a matter of immediate concern.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is a matter of immediate concern and we have a strong, robust national strategy to eliminate fuel poverty entirely by 2016–18 and for vulnerable households by 2010 in England. There must be some sense of priority here. As I said, the Government have both increased resources for the Warm Front programme and doubled the commitment under the energy efficiency scheme. Together with action on social housing, that will improve the position of exactly those vulnerable households to which the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, refers. Of course, she is well aware that there is already a strategy in place, which is being pursued vigorously by all departments involved and the industry.