Jenny Marra speech on Fuel Poverty

Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

26 October 2011

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the rising number of fuel poor in Scotland; understands that there are now 900,000 such households; considers that fuel poverty will rise further this winter in light of what it considers to be drastically increased domestic fuel prices; further considers that, if this winter is as harsh as that of 2010-11, there will be a risk of people being unable to heat their homes; notes the Scottish Government’s target to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016, and would welcome action this winter to prevent fatalities and households across Scotland having to decide between heating or eating.

Jenny Marra : Members may be aware that the Scottish fuel poverty forum met this morning for the first time under its new chair, Professor David Sigsworth.

I wish him the very best of success, and I hope that the Scottish Government will have learned from its mistakes in neglecting the advice that led to the resignation of the forum’s previous chair, Graham Blount.

Early in my speech I ask the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment to guarantee that he will assist the forum in a much more productive way by publishing its remit and revealing who will provide the secretariat to the forum.

I also ask that the forum will be given all the information that it requests from officials.
Fuel poverty is a serious concern for hundreds of thousands of people throughout Scotland, and it is the poorest who suffer most.

With some 900,000 households struggling to meet their increasing fuel bills, the Scottish Government must do whatever it can within its powers to honour its obligation under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016.

We have a long way to go to achieve that.

Rising fuel prices, harsher winters and stagnating wages are undermining efforts to meet the 2016 target.

As recent reports state that the cheapest dual-fuel price has—for the first time—risen above £1,000 per annum, we face a huge challenge to stem the tide of those who are falling into fuel poverty in this country.
Fuel poverty affects us in Scotland uniquely.

In Braemar in my constituency, heating a home takes 55 per cent more fuel than is needed to reach the same standard in Bristol.

That is because we face colder, longer winters and because our households are more likely to be in rural locations, not to be connected to the main gas grid and to be harder to heat.

That causes many problems.

Joan McAlpine: Will the member take an intervention?

Jenny Marra: No, thank you.

Health and wellbeing suffer as people choose between heating and eating, and our carbon footprint continues to grow.

Circumstances are tough, but we have convened here today on the cusp of winter—as the clocks go back this weekend—in the knowledge that the Parliament can make a difference.

As representatives of people across the country who worry about the impending winter, we have the responsibility to use the powers that are available to the Parliament to tackle fuel poverty to the best of our capability.

We have significant powers, not least in areas such as maximising energy efficiency.

We have the ability to create policies that help the growing number of families, single occupants and elderly people who are vulnerable to fuel poverty.

Too often, the Scottish Government has neglected its duty to tackle fuel poverty.

It has used cross-legislative jurisdiction as an excuse and has overemphasised the powers that we do not have, rather than used the powers that we have.

I say to those who believe that we can tackle fuel poverty only through the exclusive right to regulate energy prices that they are wrong.

Powers to regulate energy companies are reserved, but we can develop well-funded and well-targeted policies in the Parliament’s remit that work in tandem with Westminster to reduce fuel poverty.

Ignoring that role and responsibility is a breach of our contract with the Scottish people.

In his speech to the Scottish National Party conference last weekend, the First Minister said:

"We don’t control the energy markets but we can and will do something to help."

I hope that he will be true to that pledge this winter.

So far, campaigners have been disappointed to find that Mr Salmond has cut expenditure on tackling fuel poverty from £70.9 million in 2010-11 to £48 million in 2011-12.

That is a reduction of almost a third, at a time when fuel poverty is worsening.

In answer to my question a couple of weeks ago about a Government underspend in last year’s fuel poverty budget, Alex Neil said that last year’s £7 million underspend was being "recycled".

What does that mean?

Is the money subsidising this year’s budget?

Does it mean a further £7 million cut in real terms on top of this year’s £23 million cut?

That would be a cut of £30 million from the Government’s fuel poverty spending in the past couple of years, while the poorest households have suffered the harshest winters and some of the steepest energy price increases in living memory.

What could the Scottish Government do if it was not cutting the budget by £30 million?

Fuel poverty campaigners suggest incentivising installers to deliver insulation and energy efficiency schemes in very remote and rural areas.

In the Western Isles, 58 per cent of households are fuel poor.

In Orkney, the level is 44 per cent.

Those figures are unacceptable, but not irreparable.

By incentivising installers to travel to those areas, we can target resources efficiently for those who need them most.

Similarly, improvements could be made to widen access to resources for the most vulnerable by investing in the Scottish housing quality standard, which could be expanded not only to improve the performance of households in the social rented sector but to include the private rented sector in the scheme.

That policy needs resources to work.

In 2009, 62 per cent of dwellings failed the SHQS, and most failed on energy efficiency criteria.

For the rest of the United Kingdom, the Government has announced that privately rented properties are to meet minimum energy efficiency standards before they are allowed to be let.

The Scottish Government has the power to implement a similar policy if it so chooses.

Such schemes should be underpinned by proper incentives and regulation if they are to make a difference.

Those are just two initiatives in the campaign against fuel poverty.

The continuing drive for consumers to maximise their fuel efficiency must be supported.

Similarly, schemes that target harder-to-heat homes in communities in which homes are off the main gas grid would offer significant rewards when we are looking to reduce the overall levels of fuel poverty in Scotland.

It is important to recognise that those opportunities are our opportunities in the Parliament.

The prerogative rests with the Scottish Government to fully utilise the powers that it has to help the rising number of fuel poor in Scotland.

There must be a tangible commitment to policies, underpinned by a robust budget commitment, that will deliver practical help to those who need it most.

I hope that the debate will go some way to urging the Scottish Government and the First Minister, as he said, to do something to help the fuel poor this winter.


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