Saturday, 27 December 2008

Missing out on help with fuel bills

A survey that I have undertaken of the 'big 6' fuel companies (reported on in the Times today) shows that the vast majority of people living in 'fuel poverty' are missing out on the special deals that the companies offer to their most vulnerable customers. The latest semi-official estimate of fuel poverty (from the chairman of the Government's 'Fuel Poverty Advisory Group') puts the number having to pay more than ten per cent of their income to heat their home properly at between 5 million and 5.5 million households. But my survey finds that not much more than two thirds of a million households are getting the preferential rates that power companies offer to their 'vulnerable' customers. And even people who get discounted prices through so-called 'tariffs' can still end up paying more for their bills than if they switched supplier.

The story gets worse - next year the Government will make available to the companies a list of which of their customers is getting 'pension credit' - which ought to be a prime category of people who could do with some extra help this Winter. But the companies are telling me that they shouldn't be expected to make available their social tariffs to all of their customers on pension credit!

The other thing that I have found it just how complicated the rules are, depending on which company you are with. For some firms, access to their social tariff depends on anything from how many bedrooms you have, to how hold you are, what benefits you are on, how you pay your bill and how long you have been with the company for. It's hardly suprising that needy people are missing out.

Given the epidemic scale of fuel poverty this winter, the whole system of supporting people who are struggling to pay their heating bills needs a total overhaul.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Ripping off the poor?

A story that emerged today had me incensed. The Government is apparently considering replacing current interest-free social fund loans with interest rates of up to 2% per month - which is about the rate you'd pay on a dodgy store card. The alleged reason for this is that some people are taking advantage of the system by taking out loans that they don't need. As a result they are going to charge penal interest rates to people who do need loans!

One aspect of this story that is not well understood is that these loans have to be paid back over a fixed period out of what are often meagre benefit levels - especially for people of working age without children. Whilst the loan is being paid back, people are living below basic benefit levels - sometimes for years at a time. To add interest to this would be outrageous.

With rising unemployment, the number of people needing crisis loans and budgeting loans is going to increase dramatically, and already I wonder if the system can cope. One pensioner who contacted me this week had been told she could only get a £45 loan by going from South Gloucestershire to Weston-Super-Mare in person to pick it up. When I rang the DWP to pursue this I was initially told that all the people who know how the system works were 'manning the phones', especially in the run-up to Christmas.

I very much doubt that the Social Fund will cope with the big surge in demand that it is going to face in the coming months, but adding interest to injury doesn't seem to me to be a humane way forward.

PS Mind you, to hear the Tories shedding crocodile tears is a bit rich. In the early 1980s, people in poverty used to be able to get grants for essential items like cookers and fridges. It was the Tories who abolished these 'single payments' and replaced them with repayable loans. And the Tories set up a system which meant that in some circumstances you could be deemed 'too poor' to be allowed a loan! Something tells me that the Conservative party is unlikely to be the best placed to stand up for the marginalised and the dispossessed....

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Kingsnorth protest - not quite what it seemed

Kingsnorth in Kent is the site of one of the most controversial decisions that the Government will have to make in this Parliament. Eon want to replace an existing coal-fired power station with a new one. Eventually the CO2 emissions from that station might be 'captured', but the company want to be able to run the station 'unabated' in the meantime. This could be catastrophic for Britain's leadership on the climate change issue.

At the time of the 'climate camp' protest earlier in the year there was some dispute about the way the protesters were handled, but the Government said that 70 Police officers had been injured, which is clearly unacceptable. However, in response to Liberal Democrat digging, the Home Office have now had to apologise for giving the impression that 70 officers were injured by protesters. As the Guardian reports, it turns out precisely NO police officers were injured by protesters. The 'injuries' were a mixture of sunstroke, diarrhoea and 'possible bee stings'.

My view has always been that non-violent protest of this sort is an important part of our democracy - especially over such vital issues as climate change - and that the Policing of these events needs to respect peoples' democratic rights in this respect. Trying to mislead the public about the actions of the protesters is totally unacceptable, and credit to my colleague David Howarth MP for flushing this out.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Equitable Life - what should we expect?

Last week at Prime Minister's Questions the PM was asked when the Government would respond to the Ombudsman's highly critical report on the losses suffered by Equitable Life policy holders, and he said it would be 'before Christmas'. So what is he likely to say?

There is one reason to be optimistic and two reasons to be pessimistic.

The reason to be hopeful is - bizarrely - Peter Mandelson. Since Lord Mandelson returned to these shores, the Government seem to have stopped shooting themselves in the foot quite so often. The clearest example of this was the U-turn on scrapping the post office card account which would otherwise have been a hugely unpopular decision. Upsetting a million Equitable Life policy holders just before Christmas might not be the best springboard for a Spring 2009 Election.

The first reason to be pessimistic is that as soon as the Ombudsman's report was published the Treasury put a note round to MPs saying that they needed time to think but reminding us how contentious the issues were and that the Ombudsman's view was not the only one! That felt at the time like preparing us for a disagreement.

The second reason to be pessimistic is the timing of the announcement. In general, bad news is buried around the last day of a Parliamentary session when MPs are not around to cause trouble. What price a disappointing announcement next Thursday, the last sitting day before Christmas?

My view is clear - the Government simply cannot set itself up as judge and jury over the Parliamentary Ombudsman. It's like the guilty man saying to the judge - "sorry, I disagree with your verdict, I'm off". The Government needs to recognise the complete failure of the regulatory regime for which it is responsible and should ensure that policy holders are compensated.