Corner of energy bill with coins on top
Corner of energy bill with coins on top

I had the opportunity to address fuel poverty in an adjournment speech debate in the Chamber on Thursday, 20th October. This speech is timely, with more constituents contacting me about the rise in their energy bills, as they increased on 1st October. Households are struggling, climate action is needed, and we must have long-term solutions to these issues. You can read my speech in full below.

No one can deny that we are in the midst of a cost of living crisis. Many of our constituents will be looking in despair at their energy bills. Some of them will, maybe for the first time, be worrying about how to make ends meet, and having to make a decision that it is unlikely any of us in this House will have to make—choosing between heating and eating.

A few weeks ago, one constituent in Abbey Hey told me:

“I have no idea how I will manage these next few months. I will only put on the heating in one room if the temperature goes below zero. I only heat my kettle twice per day and cook hot food only three times per week to save electricity.”

It is outrageous and shameful that here, in one of the richest countries in the world, anyone is forced to limit the number of times they can cook per week because they cannot afford the energy used, but this is not unusual.

Staff at Fallowfield & Withington food bank tell me people are requesting meals and ingredients that cook fast as they cannot afford to keep their cooker on for more than a few minutes. I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to Fallowfield & Withington food bank and all the other food banks working in my constituency for all their incredible work to support my constituents. I will be following closely their new collaboration with the green doctors to support residents saving on energy bills by becoming more energy efficient.

Another constituent, a lone parent with three children in Fallowfield who is working two jobs to make ends meet, wrote to me desperate for help. She told me she has no idea how she and her children can make it through the winter warm and fed. Numerous churches, schools and community centres have written to me expressing the impact of energy bills that are four to five times higher than they were last winter. Many of these places—including Manley Park Methodist church, Longsight Makki Masjid mosque and the Levenshulme Inspire centre, as well as our fantastic Manchester City Council libraries—want to remain open as warm hubs for those who cannot afford heating at home, but growing energy bills alongside inflation make this so much harder for these organisations. I am grateful to these places for remaining open for those most vulnerable in our society, and I am grateful for our food banks, their staff and volunteers.

No one should ever be put in such a situation. The cost of living crisis makes this debate feel timely, but it would be wrong to say that fuel poverty is new. The most recent available official statistics are from 2020, before the current cost of living crisis. They indicate that 10,364 households in my constituency were in fuel poverty—that is 24%—which was the sixth highest proportion in England and Wales, and the highest in the north-west. In some parts of my constituency, notably Fallowfield, Rusholme and Longsight, the picture is even bleaker, with nearly 40% of households affected in some areas.

I am not sure whether levelling up is still Government policy, but the statistics show significant regional inequality. The south-east has just under half the proportion of houses in poverty than the north-west—I note that the Surrey constituency of this week’s Chancellor has only 7% of households in fuel poverty, which is less than a third of the number in my constituency. There is also a racial disparity: the proportion of ethnic minority households in fuel poverty is 1.5 times that of their counterparts who identify as white. Purely anecdotally, it is notable that cities and towns such as Manchester, Bradford, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Birmingham, which have high proportions of people of south Asian heritage, are disproportionately represented in the top 50% of households in fuel poverty.

It is important to recognise that fuel poverty is more than being chilly. It is not a case of just putting on another jumper, and it has been shown that cold homes worsen respiratory conditions, cardiovascular disease, poor mental health and dementia. A review by the Institute of Health Equity led by Sir Michael Marmot indicated that diseases linked to cold and damp cost the national health service £6.9 million a day. Fuel poverty has a disproportionate impact on children. In addition to impacting on their health, according to a report from the Childhood Trust fuel poverty has a number of additional indirect impacts, such as lower rates of educational attainment, and it places strain on young people’s mental health.

Although low pay, insufficient welfare support or unemployment are factors in fuel poverty, as are global energy prices, there are structural reasons why people from less affluent neighbourhoods are more at risk of falling into fuel poverty. For example, many of my constituents, who are generally in private rented accommodation, are forced to use prepayment meters for electricity and gas. Households with prepayment meters pay what Fair By Design calls a “poverty premium”. They are forced to pay suppliers’ standard rates without being able to enter fixed-rate contracts, and unlike many others, they were immediately affected by hikes in retail energy prices. They are subject to higher standing charges that apply even if no energy is used, and they are unable to access discounts for direct debit payments or paperless billing. That leads to households simply cutting themselves off. If customers with traditional meters do not pay their bill, their energy company might be able to offer them support. If those on a prepayment meter do not have enough money, they simply do not top up, yet they still rack up more debt because of the standing charges. All that adds up, and we know that people with prepayment electricity meters are three times more likely to be in fuel poverty than those with a traditional meter.

In my constituency, Edwardian terraces are the most common form of housing. Now more than a century old, they were built long before modern energy efficient building techniques and insulation. Many residents cannot afford to improve the energy efficiency of their home, or they live in privately rented accommodation and are therefore at the mercy of a landlord. To address fuel poverty we must acknowledge the need for retrofitting—my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) made that point earlier. Retrofitting would address not only cold homes but the UK’s carbon emissions, because 23% of all emissions come from home heating and powering. The least energy efficient houses pay over £900 per year more on their bills.

As the Minister will know, the Government previously ran the green homes grant voucher scheme which—let us face it—was a failure. It completed work on only 7% of the projected targets, and only 224 energy efficiency measures were installed in my constituency.

The average person cannot do this on their own. The estimated cost of a full-property retrofit is £25,000 to £30,000, which would be impossible for most people to pay, let alone those struggling to pay their energy bills. That is why the Government must create a scheme to get homes insulated and retrofitted. It must be a scheme that works, creates green jobs and helps working-class families to heat their homes.

We should acknowledge the work by organisations such as People Powered Retrofit which are helping to tackle the skills gap across the construction sector by offering “retrofit fundamental” courses. Such courses provide the background knowledge needed to begin green construction.

There are great local projects happening in Manchester and across the country. I draw the House’s attention to the work of the Carbon Co-op and its Levenshulme area-based retrofit scheme. The scheme shows the savings from and benefits of a street-by-street approach to home retrofits and how retrofit can be made a possibility for homeowners who may never have had the opportunity otherwise.

As we all know, net zero by 2050 is a guideline, but we do not have until 2050 to make serious changes to our emissions. We are already seeing the detrimental effects of climate change. Just recently, we saw devastating floods in Pakistan, where an area the size of the UK was under water and overnight 33 million people became refugees in their own country. Scientists have said that the impact was worse due to climate change. That is why we must treat energy issues as environmental issues. If the whole of the UK was powered by renewables, solar would use only 2.1% of land, which is roughly the same amount currently used by golf courses. Some might say that would be a good swap.

Fuel poverty is an issue of dignity. Households deserve to eat and feel warm this winter and every winter. No one should be made to spend hours on a bus to stay warm or skip meals because they cannot afford the energy that they would use, and no child should go to bed cold.

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