Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Getting to grips with a new brief...

I don't recommend you trying, but if you wanted to write to me formally, I am technically now the Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Energy, Food and Rural Affairs - the office team are now demanding bigger business cards!

One of the challenges is getting my head round such a huge brief, and one of the best ways is to chip in on 'bite-size' topics. Today I had to respond for the party to a 90 minute debate on the issue of fuel poverty - very topical given the huge hikes in fuel prices by NPower recently.

A lot of good points were made in the debate, and I highlighted the vital importance of energy efficiency and energy conservation. In short, it makes no sense to pay people more and more benefit so they can afford to pay high fuel bills when a lot of the hot air goes straight up through the loft or out through draughty windows or doors! If we can improve insulation then we can cut carbon emissions and also save people some money - a real 'win win'.

One issue that came up was the position of people who use pre-payment meters. My instinct was that people who use these meters are being ripped off and that cutting the charges on these meters would be a good answer to fuel poverty. But it turns out that things are not quite that simple.

First of all, some companies actually charge the same tariff on prepayment meters as on other customers (despite the higher costs), and many consumers actually prefer a prepayment meter as it helps them to budget. Second, many of the "fuel poor" are not on prepayment meters and many of the people on prepayment meters aren't "fuel poor" So, perhaps surprisngly, if you forced companies to cut costs for everyone on a meter, and to find the money by raising the cost for other customers, you would probably hurt more people living in fuel poverty than you would help!

It just goes to show that when you tackle a new subject you have to be a bit careful about jumping to conclusions.


MartinK said...

Hi Steve,
Congratulations on the impressive new appointment.

Energy efficiency certainly offers huge potential savings.

Chris Huhne detailed ideas on the use of carbon taxes. Is this something you support?


Steve Webb MP said...

Hi Martin,

Thanks for the message.

We're sticking with our 'green tax switch' proposals which involve no increase in the overall tax burden, but higher taxes on polluting activities eg buying and driving a gas guzzling car or flying a half-empty aeroplane around the world, and cutting taxes on incomes. The exact detail has to evolve because some of the measures we propose get enacted in Budgets (!), but the principle will remain.


Steve W.