Fuel Poverty (Target, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

By the end of November 2016 a significant piece of Scottish legislation lapsed which required the Scottish Government to have eliminated Fuel Poverty.  It came as no surprise to those working in the sector that this goal was not achieved.  Over the Summer of 2016 the Scottish Government had taken stock, consulted widely in order to draft a new Fuel Poverty Bill.  On Wednesday this week the Fuel Poverty (Target, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill had its stage one debate in the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament. 

What does this bill do?
  • It sets targets to achieve a reduction of Fuel Poverty to 5% by 2040.
  • Revises our definition of fuel poverty
  • It sets obligations on regular reports on the levels of fuel poverty

The Bill was both lauded as ambitious and condemned for its lack of ambition and inherent scrutiny of progress.  There is no doubt that there is a desire to eliminate fuel poverty and to do so quickly.  There is an urgency to mitigate the situations of those deemed to be in extreme fuel poverty.  This then has to be balanced between what is deliverable and what is realistically achievable.  We should not underestimate the challenges that need to be addressed to eliminate fuel poverty and that the Scottish Government does not have control over all the levers that influence fuel poverty. 

However, we also must recognise that it does have an increasing grasp on matters relating to a range of social security benefits, and perhaps more importantly for the aim of improving energy efficiency in dwellings, it has the power to determine its own delivery mechanism for the Energy Company Obligation (ECO). Since October 2018, the ECO, a GB policy requiring suppliers to meet savings in consumers bills through energy efficiency measures, is now fully focused on targeting its resources on homes of the fuel poor. A point absent from yesterday's debate, while matters focused on redress for Green Deal finance packages took up much debate time which is likely to have a marginal impact on tackling fuel poverty going forward.

Does this Bill do anything different from what was done under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001?

What we have done over the past twenty years is to deliver a national energy advice service for the people and to focus the primary investment in improving domestic energy efficiency yet, a number of speakers yesterday lamented the failure of the Government to bring forward a Warm Homes Bill to be integrated into this Bill.  It is undeniable that we need better quality homes that are easier and more able to hold heat and that we need equal access to basic amenities which enable a modern standard or living.  It is not possible to separate completely housing quality and fuel poverty they are related but not the full picture.  Those homes with the lowest incomes have the lowest fuel spends.  Investing in housing quality makes homes cheaper to heat but does not address the under spend of the low income homes on energy to power all their necessary energy needs. We must not lose sight of the benefits that good energy advocacy/advice brings to households struggling to manage multiple budgetary pressures, just because a home is provided with the means to achieve efficient energy use, does not mean we can assume that this is providing a benefit to the occupants.

If the bill proceeds with this conflation of fuel poverty and domestic energy efficiency as determined only by the EPC, which limits our view of domestic energy use to that required for lighting, space and water heating, rather than focusing on a more holistic view of domestic energy as an enabler of the modern amenity of our homes, it may well condemn itself failure before it even becomes Statute. 

The Bill will now proceed through parliamentary procedure with second and third readings.  There are some proposed amendments that are likely to be forwarded for debate at the second reading.  These amendments are likely to include;
  • Rural and island uplifts, in effect a rural MIS for Scotland  
  • Consequences for failure of Government to achieve targets
  • Interim targets, fuel poverty to be reduced to 15% by 2030 and median fuel poverty gap no more than £350.
  • An extreme fuel poverty definition and separate target included to prioritise tackling the worst affected homes first

This Bill is at its early stages and we remain hopeful that it can be strengthened, being ambitious realistic and purposeful for the task of providing a social justice for those unable to enjoy the basic amenities that affordable energy at home can offer.  In order to be successful our fuel poverty Bill must accept a need to focus on the needs of the householders, the “folk first" not just giving them homes with a better EPC rating.