23 January 2013

S4M-05424 Fuel Poverty

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05424, in the name of Margaret Burgess, on tackling fuel poverty.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I apologise to members, because I will leave after my speech. I will read subsequent speeches in the Official Report with interest.

I welcome this important debate, which is timely as the chill hand of winter clasps us to its icy bosom for the first time this year and the reality of heating costs is hitting many homes very hard.

I listened with interest to a number of things that Liam McArthur had to say. He criticised us for suggesting that we were being thwarted by Westminster. I want to expand a little bit on the intervention by my colleague Annabelle Ewing in relation to Mike Weir’s proposed bill, which would in fact have cost nothing, as it would merely have advanced payments within the financial year. However, his bill was not given the slightest serious consideration at Westminster and was simply talked out.

For those who heat their homes by gas or electricity and have the energy conveniently delivered automatically by the national grid, the need to pre-plan and pre-pay for their energy use is largely absent. However, many of my constituents and many of those of other members are based in a rural location and are dependent on fuel that they have to order and have delivered—fuel that they have to pay for before use. They would have found advance payment of the benefit a modest but much-valued piece of support that Westminster could have provided at zero cost. It would have involved not new expenditure but simply retiming.

Domestic oil is the main rural energy source, and it cannot readily be bought in dribs and drabs.

Liam McArthur: I certainly do not disagree with anything that Stewart Stevenson has said. However, does he welcome the move to put in place permanently an increase from £8.50 to £25 for the winter fuel payment, rather than wait for the payment to be triggered by a drop in temperatures or, indeed, a calculation of the wind-chill factor?

Stewart Stevenson: Of course I do. However, given that it generally takes a four-figure sum to top up an oil fuel tank and that there is a delay of four weeks during the cycle of rising prices that we always see as winter approaches, the increase that the member referred to would not match the increase in price that is created when people are unable to buy early, when the prices are low.

That is why it is such a disgrace that Westminster did not even consider the substantive issues in Mike Weir’s bill. It would have been fair enough if Westminster had analysed it and found it impractical. I would have been disappointed by that, but the process would have been just and fair. However, talking out bills on matters that are important to people in rural Cornwall, rural Wales and many parts of Scotland is simply an abrogation of democratic accountability and responsibility.

Of course, for my constituents, insult is added to injury when they see the flares of the St Fergus gas terminal, from where on many days the majority of the UK’s gas comes to the beach. Few of my rural constituents have access to that gas through the mains.

Before there is a vote on our having the full powers of a normal nation in 2014, what should we focus on? I very much welcome the substantial sum of £250 million that has been allocated to fuel poverty and energy efficiency by the Government in the current spending period. I will focus on fuel efficiency and energy efficiency in particular—partly because of the policy reach that is associated with the area, because in addressing fuel poverty, we also address employment and climate change. In relation to climate change, consuming less energy is closely associated with emitting less in the way of dangerous greenhouse gases. Substantial progress towards greening our energy consumption in buildings is welcome, and we must keep up the pressure on that. However, most energy still has a substantial fossil fuel element, so the message “burn less, emit less” continues to be relevant.

Energy efficiency almost always starts with simple, modestly priced adaptations of existing buildings. Home insulation is one adaptation that is particularly effective in reducing energy consumption. This is the first winter that we have had 600mm of insulation in the loft at our house—up from 200mm last winter. We have already seen a 40 per cent reduction in the consumption of oil that we burn in our boiler. Such reductions will be replicated by other people. That is kind to the climate and brilliant for the wallet. Insulation interventions also create jobs that are largely local, which keeps money in our own economy and boosts employment that is generally accessible to a wide range of unemployed people. It is therefore a win-win-win agenda.

We have heard a number of speeches in this debate, on which I will make brief comment, if I am permitted to do so.

Murdo Fraser said that we have planning control over energy. We certainly have administrative devolution, in sections 36 and 37 of the Electricity Act 1989, but we have no legislative competence to go with that.

One of the things that I was most pleased about as a minister was an early action to get Lynne Sullivan to chair a report into our buildings and how we could make them carbon efficient. We continue to inherit the benefits of having taken that action.

Like Richard Baker, I am looking forward to the Energy Action Scotland Burns supper. I am certainly preparing my contribution—I do not know whether Richard Baker is speaking as well.

We have more consensus than the plethora of amendments might immediately suggest. I hope that we can unite around the Government’s objectives, which I believe offer a sensible, practical, affordable and ultimately effective way forward for those in fuel poverty.


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