Energy Prices debate
19th October 2011
James Morris raises constituents' concerns about rising fuel prices and looks at how the Government can help in the short-term and long-term.
James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who made a powerful case on behalf of his constituents and made some valuable points.
This is an important debate, because as I know from talking to my constituents in the west midlands, people are genuinely concerned about rising utility bills. As other hon. Members have pointed out, including the Secretary of State, fuel poverty urgently needs to be addressed. The west midlands as a region has the greatest proportion of people in fuel poverty in England, at 22.5% of the population or some 500,000 people. Around 20% of my constituents—7,500 people—could be defined as being in fuel poverty. This issue therefore needs to be tackled urgently. It has been around for a while: it has not suddenly emerged in the last 18 months, although I accept that genuine spikes in fuel prices have made the situation more difficult.
The Government need to respond—and they are responding—with a mix of policies. Both short-term and long-term policies need to be deployed to tackle the entrenched problem of fuel poverty and the situation that we face. However, there is no silver bullet, as it were, that could be fired to solve some of the difficult problems that we face from rising fuel prices. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have made some valid points; I am bucking the fashion by not having a five-point plan—because a number of the issues are interlinked. We live in a society where our houses lose energy very rapidly—something about our housing stock is weak in that regard—which is why I am supportive of the Government’s initiatives in the green deal, which I believe offers a comprehensive solution to improving energy efficiency. The green deal will also have the side benefit of potentially providing important jobs in the area of the black country that I represent. I know, having talked to many local organisations and people in the Rowley Regis area, that there is particular enthusiasm for the green deal. We need to tackle energy loss in our housing stock.
I also welcome other initiatives that came out of the summit that was held earlier in the week. The big six energy companies have a responsibility to communicate information to their customers in a much more targeted way, so I welcome the announcement that they are to write to the 4 million most vulnerable energy consumers about the opportunities that are available for home insulation. That strikes me as a fundamental responsibility, and the big six need to concentrate on the way in which they communicate basic information to some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
Just as we need to tackle the problem of energy loss in our housing stock, we also need to focus on unnecessary energy use. This is not about going around lecturing people on how they should heat their homes, but I know that the Government are committed to introducing smart meters, which will make a fundamental difference. This is a long-term project, but, as I have said, we need short-term and long-term measures to address these questions. Smart meters will introduce a major change in the way in which people consume energy, and they will certainly help them to have a clearer idea of their family or individual energy use.
The Secretary of State and others have also raised the broader strategic point that we face major issues of energy security in Britain today. The fact has been well documented that Britain is very vulnerable to energy price shocks, and our dependency on imported gas and oil has given rise to energy security issues. This is a macro question, and it is imperative that we diversify our energy sources. Hon. Members have talked about the use of nuclear power, as well as other forms of low-carbon energy and renewables, over the next 10 to 20 years. This is critical; we are not going to solve the problems affecting our most vulnerable residents and consumers unless we are clear about dealing with the diversity of our energy supply and the problems of energy security. Those factors are critical to the debate.
Other hon. Members have mentioned tariff complexity. This brings us back to the responsibilities of the big six energy companies. The market is too complicated. There are too many tariffs and it is confusing for consumers. I agree with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne that those who suffer most from this tariff complexity are the most vulnerable of our residents.
Laura Sandys: May I add that it is not only the most vulnerable people in society who do not understand the tariffs? In fact, very few people understand them. A fundamental problem is the idea of a unit. I do not know what a unit is. I do not know whether my hon. Friend knows what a unit is. We must start using language such as “an hour’s use of a bulb”, or some other form of consumer language. Companies need to be much less old fashioned, and much better at consumer communication. They need to communicate the value of the units and what we are paying for them.
James Morris: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The energy companies need to simplify the tariffs, but as she says, the language used to communicate also needs to change. The big six have a responsibility for communicating information in a way that is comprehensible and does not distort consumer choice. That is a fundamental issue. Ofgem has a responsibility here and the Government need to ensure that they keep the pressure on it continuously to monitor how information is distributed within this market to ensure that it is a truly competitive one. Ofgem must be on top of this, constantly monitoring to ensure that we get simplification both of the tariffs and of the information sent to consumers.
In the short term, as other hon. Members have mentioned, it is critical during the lead-up to this winter to maintain the winter fuel and cold weather payments, and to implement the warm home discount. Those are important short-term measures to maintain the situation and ensure that our most vulnerable residents are not put under pressure as they seek to heat their homes during what might be a very difficult winter.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman is making a considered speech, dealing with all the elements involved in this complex issue and specifically mentioning winter fuel allowances. On behalf of all our constituents, especially the vulnerable elderly, does he think it is good enough for the Government to say, “Because Labour was going to cut the winter fuel allowances for the over-80s and the under-80s, we are simply following suit”? Do we not owe it to our vulnerable elderly people at this time to ensure that those winter fuel allowances continue at their previous level?
James Morris: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but the Government had to make some decisions about spending and they matched what the previous Government had proposed for the winter fuel allowance. I think that was a fair and reasonable decision.
Sarah Newton: On that point, many more pensioners will benefit as a result of the warm home payment. Is it not a huge problem for pensioner households that many elderly people do not really understand all the benefits to which they are entitled. Year after year, Age UK runs campaigns to demonstrate how many millions of people are not collecting all the benefits to which they are entitled. If they did, their household incomes would improve and they would have more money. It is important that in talking specifically about winter benefits, we should remind our constituents to make sure that they claim all their benefits. They should go down to their citizens advice bureau, Age UK or the local Age Concern and get a benefit check so that they receive all the money to which they are entitled.
James Morris: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the collection of benefits available. There is an issue about pensioners and other groups not knowing which benefits are available.
The Government are taking some short-term measures, but it is important to note that they need to take long-term measures because this problem will not be solved by a single silver bullet. The Government are going in the right direction. This debate has provided a useful airing of views across the House about how we tackle this important problem.