Amanda Solloway – 2023 Speech on Fuel Costs for Rural Households and Communities

The speech made by Amanda Solloway, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, in the House of Commons on 29 March 2023.

May I first say what an excellent speech that was, and what thought-provoking words have come from this debate? I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for initiating the debate, and for her additional work on supporting rural households and communities.

The Government have implemented several comprehensive support schemes across the United Kingdom to assist our rural households and communities. In particular, I would like to address the issue of the support being provided in Scotland, given the importance of these communities to Scotland, as well as the wider United Kingdom. I am aware of the significant proportion of Scottish domestic properties not on the gas grid; as the hon. Member said, it is estimated to be about 65% of homes in rural Scotland. These communities face significant challenges. The number of households classed as being in extreme fuel poverty is about three times higher in rural areas than in the rest of Scotland. As hon. Members will know, many factors influence that, including a longer heating season, exposed conditions, and historically poor housing stock. As a result, the Government’s energy schemes have rightly offered much-needed support to rural communities over the winter in the face of high energy costs.

A range of domestic and non-domestic support has been provided to rural communities, and particularly off-grid users. The alternative fuels payment is available to households that use as their main heating source alternative fuels, such as heating oil or liquefied petroleum gas. That includes many Scottish rural households. More than 85% of relevant customers in Great Britain will have received their payment automatically via their electricity supplier in February 2023. Those who have not received the payment automatically will need to apply to the AFP alternative fund via a short online form on gov.uk.

Helen Morgan

On that point, I cannot reiterate enough how many people might not be able to access that online portal. I am aware that there is a phone number, but the messaging on and advertising of that number have been quite poor. Constituents have come to us asking about this, and we have pointed them in the right direction, but there will be people out there who are not aware that they can access that support, because they cannot get online.

Amanda Solloway

I thank the hon. Member for a very valid point. As she points out, we have been engaging. We have the helpline; we have a contact number. We are trying to reach out as much as possible. I encourage all hon. Members, on the record, to reach out and encourage people to go through the website portal or, indeed, through the helpline.

The energy bills support scheme is being delivered as a £400 discount on electricity bills, provided by suppliers in monthly instalments from October 2022 to March 2023. It has been delivered to 2.6 million households in Scotland. As March is almost over, may I use this opportunity to again urge hon. Members to join the Government in highlighting to their constituents that it is important that traditional prepayment meter users redeem their vouchers for that scheme now? Electricity suppliers can reissue expired or lost vouchers, but they must all be used by 30 June, when the scheme closes. It is vital that households in Scotland that use traditional prepayment meters and receive EBSS in the form of vouchers make use of the support being provided to them. Our latest transparency publication data shows that as of 1 March, almost 340,000 vouchers in Scotland remain unused—a point to which hon. Members have referred.

Households in Great Britain that do not have a domestic electricity supply, such as off-grid households and park home residents, and who have not been able to receive their support automatically, can now apply for their £400 support through the energy bills support scheme alternative funding. I encourage households that are eligible to apply for support before the scheme closes on 31 May 2023, either through the online application form on gov.uk, or by calling our contact centre helpline. I would be happy to share this information with MPs following the debate.

The final aspect of domestic support that we have provided is the energy price guarantee, which reduces electricity and gas costs for domestic customers. It helps to lower annual bills, combat fuel poverty and maintain supplier market stability. The scheme covers approximately 2.5 million households across Scotland and 29 million households across the UK in total. I hope the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East was pleased to hear the recent announcement that the energy price guarantee will be kept at £2,500 for an additional three months from April to June, providing more savings to households.

Tim Farron

I am grateful for the Minister’s comprehensive answers. The support that businesses get will expire, which is a problem that we could address. Lumped under the category of “businesses” are our hospices, which have seen a 350% increase in fuel bills. Not only are they getting insufficient support now, but they will soon get nothing. Will the Minister consider a special package to support hospices, which clearly cannot turn the heating down?

Amanda Solloway

I thank the hon. Member for that question. I assure him that I am reaching out to a whole host of stakeholders, and am talking to a variety of groups about that very issue. Alongside the support we are offering to households, there is the energy bill relief scheme, introduced in October 2022 for the winter; we will continue to run it until the end of the month. The support offered by this package is worth £7.3 billion and is available across the United Kingdom.

It is right that we balance continued support with energy costs with our duty to the taxpayer. Energy prices are coming down, but we must also recognise that prices remain above historical levels. For that reason, although the energy bill relief scheme is coming to an end, we have pledged to provide further support to non-domestic customers, including our farming industry, from April onwards, through the energy bills discount scheme. Under this support package, energy and trade intensive industries and domestic customers on heat networks will receive more than the baseline element of support.

I thank again the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East. I give my assurance that I am reaching out to a variety of stakeholders, including suppliers. This has been an incredibly important debate, and I sincerely thank her for securing it. It is important to raise awareness of the support for rural communities in these challenging times.