On 13 September, the Energy Security and Net Zero Committee held an evidence session for its inquiry into preparations for winter. The committee grilled representatives of Ofgem (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets) on actions the energy regulator was taking to ensure households would not face unaffordable energy bills this winter.
Originally, the committee was also due to question the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s (DESNZ) new lead minister, Claire Coutinho. However, Coutinho pulled out of the meeting.
This had committee chair and SNP MP Angus Brendan MacNeil wondering why the minister had ditched the session. During the meeting, MacNeil said that:
She was meant to be here today, but for various reasons—perhaps a lack of confidence or not being on top of her brief or whatever—she is not. I am not sure, but we are very disappointed
Less volatile market, but energy bills still sky-high
It’s perhaps not surprising the energy minister ditched the session in light of the stark warnings from the government’s arms-length energy regulator. Chief executive of Ofgem Jonathan Brearley appeared before the committee and sketched out the dire situation for households this winter. Brearley opened with what he described as the “positive news” – namely that:
the market is more stable; it is less volatile, and prices are lower than they were this time last year.
By comparison, he also said that:
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This time last year, we were anticipating and seeing prices at around £4,200 a year without Government support.
June saw a 25.2% drop in gas prices. The Office for National Statistics largely attributed this to Ofgem lowering the energy price cap that month. Ofgem has set the energy price cap at £1,923 for the period between October and December. This is down on the £2,074 between July and September.
As fuel poverty non-profit National Energy Action (NEA) noted, however:
This is still around £700 more than in October 2021, when the energy crisis began when 4.5 million UK households were in fuel poverty.
Energy bills to rise without action
Moreover, Brearley’s assessment quickly took a negative turn. Crucially, he warned that some households could actually face higher bills than last year. This is because the government has reduced financial support. Brearley stated that:
That support is not available, so for many people, their bills will be very similar this year and possibly worse for some than they were last year.
Specifically, the government has scrapped the £400 winter discount on energy bills. In addition, it scaled back its Energy Price Guarantee (EPG) support scheme.
Invariably, energy price hikes will hit the poorest households hardest. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition has estimated for example that:
Fewer than 5m of the UK’s 28m households could be classed as being in the “energy elite” and unaffected by the current energy bills crisis. Around 8m have to borrow money to pay their energy bills and over 1m have disconnected for periods this year.
Plan to abandon the poorest households
On the news Coutinho would not be attending, committee chair MacNeil also remarked how:
it is disappointing that the Government can find nobody from the ESNZ department to answer our questions and demonstrate that they do have a plan to help the many facing up to an incredibly harsh time this winter.
As the government withdrew its support for the EPG in April, it announced a new targeted cost of living payment to fill the gap. However, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) found that 1.7 million people in fuel poverty could miss out on the support.
Of course, as the Canary’s Steve Topple has pointed out before, the Tories do have a plan. Simply put, they plan not to help households out of fuel poverty. Topple argued that energy prices are the “latest weapon” in the Tories’ class war, in that:
the rich and powerful are knowingly doing things that will suppress the poorest people and keep them in their poverty-stricken place.
Moreover, a previous inquiry session laid out clearly the devastating impact the Tories’ class war has had on marginalised communities. On 6 September, the committee met with non-profit groups. A number of organisations provided evidence of where the government had fallen short last winter.
Notably, National Energy Action (NEA) estimated that the government had failed to reach over a million vulnerable households with vital financial aid. It said that this meant the government didn’t give out £440m allocated towards energy support. Meanwhile, the End Poverty Coalition calculated that cold, damp homes killed nearly 5,000 more people in winter 2022/23 than the average.
The committee also questioned Ofgem on the failures of the government’s warm homes discount scheme. Committee chair Angus Brendan MacNeil grilled Ofgem about a damning BBC revelation on the plans. The broadcaster found that it had failed to deliver support to over 700,000 people out of the 900,000 eligible.
At this point, MacNeil cast some shade at Coutinho, noting that:
We would ask the Secretary of State to answer that herself if she were here.
Giving up the pretense entirely
Given these failures of her department, is it any wonder the new energy minister evaded scrutiny? Regardless, the situation spoke volumes of the government’s concern for the most vulnerable this winter.
In February, regarding the plans to cut the EPG, the Canary’s Alex/Rose Cocker wrote that the govenment seems to be:
giving up the pretense that it cares about people being able to afford necessities such as cooking and staying warm.
Coutinho’s absence from the inquiry session brought this point home starker than ever. If the minister for Energy Security and Net Zero can’t even show up to an inquiry to discuss plans for energy bills, she sure as hell isn’t going to turn up for the poorest households when winter starts to bite.
Feature image via Lisafern/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, image in the public domain.Support us and go ad-free
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