Thursday, 9 October 2008
Dealing with fuel poverty
With all the bail-outs and rescue packages being rolled out across the world these past few weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that nationalising things was back in fashion. If only. Across the world, governments are spending billions of pounds from public purses to prop up the failed banking system. It's a kind of fake-nationalisation, which I would only support if the boards and management structures of these banks were abolished as part of the deal- heads need to roll and the least well-off need to be protected against the recession. While the banks are being partly nationalised as an emergency measure, there is also another crisis that we need to deal with.
The deregulation and privatisation of the gas and electricity utilities in the UK has led to a long-term escalation of fuel poverty, despite an initial fall in numbers of fuel poor. Liberalisation of the energy markets went along with an apparent increase in prosperity, but the recent weeks appear to be showing that prosperity under the neo-liberal model has been based on unsustainable foundations and easy credit. Customers now have very little protection against fluctuating fossil fuel prices. They are at the mercy of the market. Some of the energy companies might implement a handful of measures to try and help their poorest customers, but never in proportion to the amount of money they are making. These safety nets are clearly not enough when according to the latest estimates, a quarter of our population are being plunged into fuel poverty (representing more than a doubling of the numbers in 2005). Fuel poverty still existed before privatisation. But I can't see any way of eradicating it or even reducing it without bringing these utilities into public ownership.
Wales and the UK have the highest number of avoidable deaths due to winter cold in Western Europe. No other prosperous country allows its elderly to die due to lack of heating in the way that we do. In the short-term, a windfall tax on the record profits of the six energy companies is needed. This would pay for new social tarrifs, energy efficiency measures and an expansion of the winter fuel payments system. But in the Assembly yesterday I made it clear that this windfall tax would only be a one-off measure. The only way we can abolish fuel poverty in this country is to remove the profit motive by taking the utilities into public ownership. Energy must be provided on an affordable basis and can't be used to create huge dividend pay-outs for shareholders. I called for this in the Senedd because fuel poverty is an injustice which is ending lives prematurely.