25 November 2011

I discussed fuel poverty in the Shiver quietly:fuel poverty post and wondered about the wisdom of the cut in the winter fuel allowance at this time of rising fuel prices. The other day the Commons debated a motion from the DUP which inter alia urged the Tory Libdem government to reconsider its decision to reduce the allowance (Hansard 22 November 2011 column 182). The debate explored the issues well.

The government claimed convincingly the cut in the allowance was what the predecessor Labour government had planned and, less convincingly, that it had a range of effective policies to tackle fuel poverty. All six Cornwall MPs voted against the DUP motion, that is in effect supported the reduction in the winter fuel allowance.

An important point in the debate was that the current winter fuel allowance was paid universally to people over sixty whatever their financial position; but devising any targeted needs-based allowance that actually reaches the people for whom it is intended is difficult. The advantage of universal benefits is that they have an effective reach and targeted benefits tend not to. While targeted means more for those in need, universal, which gives to those who do not need it, helps to bind us all in social solidarity, national cohesion, and removes any stigma from the benefit. There is no easy solution but I support the needs-based targeting of the winter fuel allowance. While we try to get to that – and tackle fuel costs – I think the allowance should be paid universally to the elderly at the uncut rates.

Fuel poverty in Cornwall
Meanwhile here are some statistics about the distribution of fuel poverty in Cornwall.

The average proportion of households in fuel poverty by Cornwall constituency in 2009 (the latest year for which figures are available): Truro and Falmouth 22.0 percent of households, Camborne and Redruth 23.2, South East Cornwall 23.9, St Austell and Newquay 24.1, St Ives 28.4, North Cornwall 32.8. There were about 60 000 households in Cornwall in fuel poverty in 2009 according to these figures; the rise in fuel prices has probably increased that.

Of course, there is significant variation across Cornwall, ranging in the subwards (lower layer super output areas, LSOAS) from 7.7 percent to 48.1 percent.

The statistics are on the Department of energy and climate change website here. They are organised in various geographical areas including the six constituencies and 327 subwards in Cornwall.

Broken promise
There is another issue too. The May 2010 election manifesto of the Conservatives said, “We will protect pensioners’ benefits and concessions and this includes … the winter fuel allowance”. The Tory Libdem coalition program for government said, “We will protect … the winter fuel allowance”. Reducing the allowance is not protecting it and candidly nor would needs-based targeting be.

Fuel poverty definition
A household is described as in fuel poverty if it has to spend more than ten percent of its income on fuel to maintain satisfactory levels of warmth.