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Make fuel poverty history

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Helen Melone explains the key points of Scotland's draft fuel poverty bill

Those of us who work in fuel poverty were delighted last year when the Scottish Government published a draft Bill on fuel poverty. The aims behind the act were to set targets to eradicate fuel poverty, to have a new definition and Scottish ministers would prepare and publish a fuel poverty strategy.

The bill, as introduced, was really narrow in scope but with the help of various organisations and some really keen MSPs like Jackie Baillie, Alex Rowley, Andy Wightman, Liam McArthur and Graham Simpson, the act is far more improved. This blog will go over some of the key points and wins for Energy Action Scotland.

First of all, it’s important to look at the statistics. In Scotland, 613,000 households (24.9%) were living in fuel poverty (2017 figures). Being defined as living in fuel poverty used to mean having to spend more than 10% of your income on all household fuel use. The new fuel poverty definition still uses the 10% of your income part except it now is measured after housing costs but what income is left then needs to be enough for the household to live on (and the Scottish Government will use 90% of the UK Minimum Income Standard (MIS) to calculate that). We had questions regarding groups with extra costs that would not be accounted for in the MIS, specifically people living in rural areas and disabled people/people living with long-term conditions. Most of our amendments focussed on levelling the playing field, so that all households are treated fairly.

There are four recognised drivers of fuel poverty in Scotland; these being high energy costs, low disposable incomes, poor energy efficiency of dwellings and how energy is used in the home. The Scottish Government only has control of energy efficiency and how energy is used in the home; the other drivers are reserved to the UK.

Most of our amendments focussed on levelling the playing field

Previously, we had only engaged with scrutiny of legislation at Stage 1; and given oral and written evidence, however there are many opportunities to engage at Stage 2 and Stage 3. The meaty amendments came at Stage 2, we’d read the Bill (as introduced) in great detail and identified a number of points where improvements could be made – there could be better scrutiny of the progress being made towards the target, more vulnerable groups could be captured by the fuel poverty definition (and this would also lead to them qualifying for the fuel poverty support programmes), there could be more frequent reporting about the progress being made to eradicate fuel poverty, there could be better and stronger consultation with people with lived experience of fuel poverty, and these areas are where we focused our work.

Stage 2 took place over two sessions in March 2019 and there was a lot of argument and discussion prior to this. Most of our final list of Stage 2 amendments (13 after being knocked down from 27) was backed by Scottish Labour MSPs, who spoke to them in the Committee debates. Key wins at Stage 2 were the placing of the Scottish Fuel Poverty Advisory Panel onto a more statutory footing (much needed to give independent scrutiny of the progress towards the fuel poverty targets), the consultation with people who have lived experience was strengthened perhaps not to the extent we would have wanted, but still older people, people living in rural areas, disabled people and people with long-term illness will need to be consulted with before instruments are laid or the fuel poverty strategy is published. Periodic reporting on the progress made towards the targets was changed from every five years to every three years.

Stage 3 scrutiny of the Bill took place in the debating chamber in May 2019. A key win at Stage 3 was getting the four drivers of fuel poverty to be used when preparing the Fuel Poverty Strategy and the periodic reports.

The Act gained Royal Assent in July 2019 and last week, the Scottish Government passed Commencement regulations which bring the majority of the Fuel Poverty Act in force on Thursday 19th September. We are pleased to see events progressing and look forward to a full Fuel Poverty Strategy in 2020.

Helen Melone is policy and research officer at Energy Action Scotland