Even before global energy prices began to soar last spring, too many people in Britain could not afford to keep their homes warm in a cold winter. This year – amid a wider cost-of-living crisis driven by high inflation, a looming rise in national insurance and stagnating wages – spiralling heating bills threaten to tip the household budgets of millions over the edge. による calculations by the charity National Energy Action, six million families risk becoming fuel poor by the spring, when the energy price cap is expected to be significantly raised. This would be the highest number since such records began to be kept in 1996.
The bottom line of this crisis, for those at its sharp end, could not be more stark. Rishi Sunak’s culpably shortsighted decision to remove the universal credit uplift in the autumn stripped £20 a week from the bank accounts of the poor. In the absence of expanded fuel subsidies from the government, more and more of Britain’s less well-off families will be forced into desperate, humiliating choices between food, warmth and other essentials. Parents will go without to make sure their children eat a decent meal. Unheated homes will lead to greater ill health, while higher debt will bring spiralling levels of stress and anxiety.
To mitigate this, the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, クワシ・クワーテン, who meets the UK’s major energy suppliers this week, needs a plan that is morally fit for purpose. As Labour’s leader, キールスターマー, 持っている 指摘した, the government could by now have cut VAT on energy bills, offering some relief to consumers. A mooted £20bn state loan to the major energy companies may help to flatten the curve of rising prices. But given that the rise in the price cap in April could be as much as 50%, the government urgently needs to show some pre-emptive empathy and solidarity with those who will disproportionately suffer the consequences.
Options are available. As National Energy Action has recommended, eligibility for the winter fuel allowance should no longer be restricted to pensioners but include all on low incomes. The warm home discount scheme could be expanded, and Treasury funds used to alleviate the levels of debt accrued by hard-pressed families through no fault of their own. Some of the money for this could come from a windfall tax on North Sea gas producers, who are making record profits as a result of the crisis; the government’s own VAT and booming carbon tax receipts could also be deployed.
In the longer term, this crisis should be the final wake-up call when it comes to dealing with the chronic levels of energy inefficiency in so many British homes. A joined-up, properly financed plan to insulate and retrofit social housing to make it zero-carbon would significantly reduce household bills for the poor, reduce emissions and act as a catalyst for wider transformation. Yet in the autumn budget, Mr Sunak chose to halve the money available for a home upgrade grant targeted at improving energy efficiency in fuel-poor homes, while the failed green homes grant scheme has dented industry confidence.
Dealing with the coming energy crunch will require imagination, fiscal generosity and a recognition that – in a market that risks becoming unsustainably dysfunctional – state intervention is to be embraced rather than avoided. 悲しいことに, with this government, that may be too much to ask.