Moray SNP News
Richard Lochhead - Speech in the Scottish Parliament on Fuel Poverty - 16 November 2016
I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this important debate. I think that we all agree that, in 2016, we would expect everyone living in our country to at least have a warm and comfortable home. It is disappointing that we are having this debate again in 2016, as we would expect standards to be better, but they are not for a range of complex reasons.
I appreciate the spirit in which Alex Rowley approached the debate. It is just a shame that it went downhill from there with some of the speeches from others on the Opposition benches. It is utterly absurd for John Scott, backed up by Jackie Baillie on the Labour benches, to lay the blame on the SNP Government for the rise in fuel poverty in Scotland.
Between 2010 and 2013, energy and fuel prices rose at eight times the rate of earnings. That period, and the period since then, has coincided with the Tory party’s austerity budgets. It has been cutting people’s benefits and plunging people into poverty. I say to the Tory party that it is not the SNP ministers who should be hanging their heads in shame; rather, it is every single man and woman on the Tory benches in this Parliament who should be doing that.
As many members have made plain, a number of factors are behind fuel poverty, many of which are the UK Government’s responsibility. Another factor is global energy prices, which I have to accept that perhaps not even the UK Government can control.
Fuel poverty is affecting real people’s lives, so it is important that we have a mature and honest debate on the subject. The blame for rising fuel poverty figures over the past few years cannot be laid at the door of any one political party—and particularly not the SNP. Instead, we should recognise that the backdrop has been record investment by the SNP Government since 2007 in tackling fuel poverty.
I will address most of my remarks to the rural situation in Scotland. I welcome the publication of the task force’s report, which addressed the important issue of fuel poverty. It is a pity that, over many years, given how the UK Government has dealt with the big six energy providers, we have not paid more attention to off-grid properties, because they are a neglected problem.
In many parts of rural Scotland, people rely on deliveries of oil to heat their home with or on bottles of gas to cook with, so they do not have the options that people on the mains have, including access to dual-fuel discounts and all the special schemes, tariffs and offers from which they could benefit. Therefore, I argue for a lot more focus on off-grid properties in the times ahead not only from the Scottish Government but especially from the regulator, Ofgem, and the UK Government.
Some of the comments in the briefing from Calor Gas are pretty staggering. It says that the UK Government schemes almost completely bypassed the countryside and it criticises how energy policy and fuel poverty are being tackled in relation to off-grid properties in Scotland. It is important that we address those issues.
In my constituency, 28 per cent of properties are off-grid, compared with the national average in Scotland of 18 per cent. In Moray, we have additional problems that contribute to fuel poverty and wider poverty, including the fact that we have a low-wage economy in comparison with other mainland Scotland constituencies. Family incomes are being hammered by high fuel costs at a time when salaries are lower than they are in other parts of the country.
The figures that were sent to members by StepChange Debt Charity explain the situation, too. It highlights the fact that the number of clients in electricity and gas arrears has risen between 2015 and 2016 in Moray. Whereas 3.6 per cent of people were in gas arrears in 2015, that figure has risen to 9.4 per cent in 2016. Fuel poverty is a real issue that is affecting real people and causing debt in our society.
The housing stock has been mentioned. If I remember my facts correctly, 1 per cent of our housing stock is renewed every year, so the state of our housing stock is an issue that goes back generations. In Moray, 8 per cent of homes have a poor national home energy rating—that is way above the national average of 3 per cent—and 44 per cent of properties have a rating of below 5 on the scale compared with 25 per cent nationally. Therefore, the issue is a particular problem in Moray. As many members have said, the state of the housing stock poses challenges when it comes to energy efficiency measures. We must pay a lot more attention to such issues.
I see that I am running out of time. I want to mention an issue that has not been raised, which is energy justice, as I call it. Scotland is an energy-rich country. In Moray, we have umpteen wind farms and a lot of development is taking place in connection with the transmission lines that SSE is putting in place towards the Blackhillock substation at Keith. The people of Moray are watching a whole lot of energy bypassing their homes, or being produced near their homes, without necessarily feeling the benefit of it. It must be galling for people who live in fuel poverty and who live near an energy project, whether it is a renewables project or a project that is based on any other energy source, to have to watch that energy being developed on their doorstep or being transported past their home.
Surely we can find a way of making sure that people benefit from having such significant energy resources on their doorstep. We talk about community benefit from renewable energy projects. I would like some of that to be used for micro-energy plans or for introducing schemes to tackle fuel poverty in our rural areas, where much of the energy is produced. The Scottish ministers could make a contribution in that area. I would like to see a publicly owned Scottish national energy company taking a stake in energy projects in Scotland and reinvesting the money in other energy projects to get people out of fuel poverty.
There are some practical steps that we can take in to address the issues that I have identified. We absolutely have to eradicate fuel poverty in Scotland.