Speech on Fuel Poverty Scottish Parliament 13 March 2008

The aim of our amendment is to reinforce the importance of the role of the voluntary and statutory organisations in giving appropriate advice to those who are in fuel poverty.

For eight years, fuel poverty was a critical issue for the Labour-led Executive and the Parliament.

There is no doubt that the issue was championed by members from across the parties. Sadly, some of them are no longer with us—I think of Margaret Ewing.

Those members kept the issue on the agenda and worked hard to ensure that it did not get lost in the normal day-to-day party-political battles in which some of us are all too happy to engage.
The issues with which we are wrestling are difficult.

The debate is important in building agreement on action.

It is right that it should spur us on in recognising that there are still people who are cold in their homes and who have to choose between heating their homes and feeding themselves.

In addition, the consequences of the rise in fuel prices have huge implications for people who are in fuel poverty.

The minister has broader responsibilities, including the important issue of people having quality housing with effective insulation measures.

A broader question needs to be asked about housing policy and how local authorities and housing associations are supported in meeting the housing quality standard.

Many people wanted to vote to get rid of housing debt for just that reason.

In that broader housing debate, it is important that we hear from the minister how the Government plans to address the issue.

Labour strongly supports the fuel poverty forum.

We recognise the potential for developing a one-stop shop.

In the past, things perhaps became overfragmented, which may have led to a lack of understanding.

Critically, the fuel poverty forum recognised that Scotland is blessed with strong voluntary sector organisations.

People such as Norrie Kerr and others are committed to addressing fuel poverty and are creative in developing policy.

They are also robust in challenging Government through their advocacy for those who are in fuel poverty, no matter which party is in government.

The forum could have a key role to play in bringing the power companies to the table to discuss further the development of the social tariff and the rationalisation and harmonisation of programmes to ensure greater reach, and to consider why the poor face disproportionate charges for fuel.

Although I am sure that Alex Neil will not agree with me, I recognise the important strand that energy issues played in yesterday's budget.

We can debate how far the Government has gone in addressing the issues, but in the announcements that were made it recognised that the issue is important to everyone.

Of course it is important to link work on energy efficiency measures and fuel poverty programmes.

We must also recognise the importance of sustained money advice and energy advice, as such advice can reach out to those who are most vulnerable and who suffer most when action is not taken.

Although general energy efficiency issues are critical, we must not lose our focus on the issue of the poor paying disproportionate charges.

I am disappointed that neither the Tories nor the SNP want to consider the notion of tax incentives for microgeneration measures.

Labour's Sarah Boyack has done a huge amount of work on the area—the Government would not have to look far to get advice—and engaged with loads of people in the sector.

I hope that the minister will look further into the work that she has done.

However, the reality is that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth has set his face against such tax incentives.

As a consequence, the hands of other ministers are tied.

It is odd that a cabinet secretary who offered accelerated tax cuts to small business with no conditions attached will not support the use of taxation as a means of encouraging positive action on energy efficiency.

Labour members have an agreement with our Liberal Democrat colleagues on the issue, although we may not agree with their position on local taxation.

The motion is moderate in its demands.

It asks the Executive to look at the possibility of a local tax rebate, and it is disappointing that the Government will not countenance that.

Instead of closing down the debate, the Executive could have said that it would include that option in its report to Parliament.

We know the challenges that are involved in eradicating fuel poverty by 2016.

We acknowledge the important work that is being done and the challenging points that energywatch Scotland has raised about the central heating programme.

It is important that the debate progresses.

The minister spoke of an internal review.

I urge him to have the confidence to externalise the review, particularly around the central heating programme.

That would enable the Executive to hear what those who are trying to deliver the programme have to say about the challenges involved and the programme's effectiveness.

In his response to the debate, I hope that the minister will tell the chamber that he recognises the importance of doing that.