I attended Energy Action Scotland's annual conference this week. The conference was entitled 'A Fair Deal for the fuel poor' and it brings together all those aiming to eradicate fuel poverty in Scotland.
Amongst the workshop speakers was Simon Osborn from the consumer organisation 'Which?'. He referred to a study they had carried out in October which showed that energy bills are now the number one concern people now have in Britain. This tied in with a report published on Friday by the British Retail Consortium and Neilson which drew the very same conclusion.
And no wonder.
There are now seven million households in Britain living in fuel poverty, i.e families who do not have £1,500 for combined gas and electricity bills.
One million of those are in Scotland. Most analysts believe the Governments figures significantly underestimate the scale of the problem. Indeed the latest figures from the Scottish Government show the average family here is now paying 14% of its income on gas and electricity bills - 10% is the official definition of fuel poverty! So the average family in Scotland now has very real difficulty heating its home.
Politicians at Westminster and Holyrood are now scrambling to keep up with public anger on this issue. But their empty rhetoric is in such sharp contrast to the 'triple whammy' which confronts working class people. Rising energy bills, falling incomes and Government cut backs - on programmes designed to alleviate fuel poverty- all add up to a very potent anger.
And politicians playacting with figures instead of bringing forward meaningful measures is only likely to 'fan the angry flames'. SNP Infrastructure Secretary Alex Neil for example was caught out trying to deceive the EAS conference with claims he is increasing support for those aiming to install new boilers and household insulation when in fact his Government has cut the funds available from £71m last year to only £49m now.
And what struck me about this EAS gathering of industry professionals was the pessimism they demonstrated about the chances of eradicating fuel poverty in this country any time soon. It's true to say most expect the situation to get worse and worse and worse.
The UK Governments 2012 Green Deal was described by several delegates as a 'car crash' which will do little to help the fuel poor. At a time of record indebtedness and falling incomes this Government scheme suggests people should take on further loans to insulate their homes.
There is of course much to be said for a thorough going public programme of insulation and energy efficiency in Britain. After all we are light years behind the Scandinavians who although they pay more than us for gas and electricity, they consume much much less because their homes are far more fuel efficient. Norman Kerr, Director of EAS, estimates Scotland needs to spend £200m annually to bring our housing stock up to adequate levels of energy efficiency. The Government currently commits only £40m/year to this end.
Governments have repeatedly been caught cold on fuel poverty. In 2000 the Westminster Parliament passed the 'Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act' which included a statutory commitment to eradicate fuel poverty in Britain by 2015/16. Unfortunately this is another promise MPs will fail to honour [just as they have now done with child poverty promises]. Their forecast is now in tatters as they mistakenly calculated that energy bills would rise by 5% between 2005-2010. In fact they have doubled, risen more than 100% and fuel poverty has now reached record levels.
Perhaps the most startling figure to emerge from the conference was contained in Professor John Hills report, commissioned by Government that more people will die of fuel poverty/cold related illnesses in Britain this year than die on our roads.
Derek Lickorish, Chair of the UK Government's Fuel Poverty Advisory Group believes the problem will get worse and worse as prices rocket, incomes fall and Government programmes are increasingly not fit for purpose.
The Scottish Socialist Party National Council in Glasgow yesterday committed the party to a 'day of action' on the issue of fuel poverty on Saturday 19th November and all SSP branches will be offering the public a chance to vent its anger in town centres and shopping centres everywhere.