Geraint Howells – 1985 Speech on Fuel Poverty

Below is the text of the speech made by Geraint Howells, the then Liberal MP for Ceredigion and Pembroke North, in the House of Commons on 16 December 1985.

When the unnaturally cold spell hit us in November, many thousands of householders up and down the country were alarmed, for they saw ahead of them yet another long, dreary winter following on a cold and wet summer, with the ever-rising fuel bills that this means. This thought is depressing enough for the moderately affluent among us, but for those on the poverty line, or beneath it, it spells disaster and, for many, the inevitable cutting off of supplies because of the lack of ability to pay.

The Electricity Consumers Council recently issued disconnection figures up to 30 September of this year which show that the number of disconnections in England and Wales is now running at nearly 100,000 a year. The Liberal party commission on poverty in 1982 pointed out that one quarter of all local authority tenants are the victims of fuel poverty, while a further quarter are potential victims.

Age Concern tells us that seven years ago it was estimated that 90 per cent. of elderly people were unable to heat their homes up to the required 70 deg F to keep themselves warm and healthy in the winter months, and there is very little evidence that the position is improving. The consequences of inadequate heating for the elderly are often illness and, in some cases, death. We are all familiar with the sad stories of old people shivering in their poorly heated houses, terrified of the financial consequences of turning up the heat. Fuel costs have risen steeply in the last decade, and although prices have levelled off somewhat during the last two or three years the overall rise in the cost of fuel and light in real terms during the decade was 37·4 per cent., far outstripping other items in the household budget.

The people who have suffered most from the increase in fuel costs are inevitably the poor. They tend to live in bad housing, with inadequate insulation, often with the additional problems of dampness and condensation. They are seldom able to choose the kind of heating that they want and often end up with expensive and inefficient heating systems. This leads to a ridiculous situation, where those who can afford it least have to pay the most to keep themselves moderately warm. It is no wonder, therefore, that this leads to a failure to pay bills and to consequent misery.

We believe, as do the charities, that the White Paper that was published today will do little to help. Indeed, we feel that the difficulties will be even greater, both for the low paid who cannot heat their homes and for those charities that are involved in insulating several thousand homes in Britain.

The abolition of additional payments, including heating allowances for supplementary benefit claimants, will have serious consequences. The replacement of supplementary benefit by a system of income support containing a theoretical heating component may sound reasonable, but in practice it will lead to some very unpleasant choices for many households where budgets are strained to the limit. It could well be a stark choice between eating and keeping warm, with disastrous results for vulnerable groups, particularly the elderly.

I am also extremely alarmed that all other heating benefits to households, with special problems—those with young children or with ill, disabled or elderly people—will be abolished merely as an administrative convenience. It is also obvious that the abolition of single payments will jeopardise the future of insulation projects run by charities such as Neighbourhood Energy Action. In fact, the “Right to Fuel” campaign has said that DHSS single payments account for 80 per cent. of all insulation work carried out by the NEA.

Since 1981, this excellent group has carried out 120,000 jobs and has helped the elderly and disadvantaged to get the benefit of home insulation. At the same time, it has created about 2,500 jobs under the Government’s community programme. Furthermore, it has opened up a new and thriving market for insulation projects. Will that work now be put at risk?

I believe that the present Administration, in their unseemly scramble to save money wherever they can at any cost, are in danger of reinforcing their public image as an uncaring, unsympathetic Government who are so intent on introducing tax cuts before the next election that they are careless of the needs of the most vulnerable in our society.

The White Paper represents a lost opportunity. It should have made an attempt to tackle the problem of fuel poverty, and it should have recognised the crucial role that single payments play in keeping the poor warm. The Government should take positive steps to make resources available for a special fund, as recommended by the Neighbourhood Energy Action movement, to provide a comprehensive and cost-effective approach to the insulation needs of the poor.

On a wider scale, greater efforts should be made to improve the housing stock and to ensure that building improvements and renovations are not subject to a crippling tax. Age Concern, a leading charity in the care of the elderly, has made many useful recommendations that the Government could well take on board and which would prove beneficial to all impoverished sections of society. It recommends that there should be mandatory payments for special circumstances, such as higher fuel bills in exceptionally severe weather. There should also be payments for draught proofing materials and insulation, repairs to heating appliances and so on.

I also believe that there should be a uniform and humane policy throughout Britain on disconnection procedures and repayment facilities, and that special payments should be made for reconnection. Fuel bills should be paid when disconnection may cause serious risk.

Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government are conscious of the need to modify their policies to fit the realities of life? After all, even the poorest among us are entitled to the basic requirements, including adequate heating. It is wrong that so many in this affluent society must face a miserable existence, and in this season of good will I hope that it will be possible for the Government to show just the smallest glimmer of compassion.