Friday, 12 December 2008

Colin Fox: Too poor to stay warm

by the Scottish Socialist Party's Colin Fox, first published in the Morning Star

Scottish government figures released this month showed 569,000 Scots households living in fuel poverty. The number has doubled since 2002.

Fuel poverty campaigners have reacted angrily to the news and attacked the failure of repeated government "initiatives."
They point to the fact that hese latest figures are for the year 2006-7 and do not take account of the gas and electricity price rises of the last 12 months.

In 2002, 13 per cent of Scots households endured fuel poverty, which is defined as those spending 10 per cent of their income on keeping warm. By 2007, this had leapt to 24.6 per cent.
Households now paying more than 20 per cent of their income on gas and electricity, a category that housing charity Shelter defines as people living in "extreme fuel poverty," now number 163,000.

Across Britain, the picture is much the same. Energy Watch estimates that 5.5 million households in Britain are living in fuel poverty.
With average combined gas and electricity bills now more than £1,300, it concludes: "There are millions of families who do not have that kind of money."

The question is, will the power companies try to disconnect those families unable to pay such sums this winter?

These are the circumstances behind the Scottish Socialist Party's decision to organise a day of action across Scotland on Saturday to draw attention to this intolerable situation. We will be campaigning on the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and elsewhere to channel the widespread anger that exists towards the big six power companies and force a reduction in these exorbitant bills.

Public anger has been bubbling up for months.
Campaigning on Edinburgh's Princes Street each Saturday afternoon, I have seen it for myself. People are livid at what they see as energy companies "profiteering" and acting as an illegal industry cartel.

"Son, my gas and electric bill has never been so high," well-known local pensioner activist Phyllis Herriot told me. And this was a remark made in reference to her summer bill.
Margaret Holmes is another senior citizen who is angry. "These gas and electric firms are at it. My power card doesn't last half as long as it used tae."

And all the energy companies now admit that their power cards and pre-payment meter charges mean that the highest rates are levied against those in the lowest income groups.
So, the poor are penalised while the better off on their direct debits receive significant discounts. The government admits that more than 1,000 meters are now being installed every day in households across Britain.

The North Edinburgh Fuel Poverty group has also been campaigning for many months. It believes that people are extremely fearful that they will not have the money to pay these exorbitant bills when they arrive.

All the power companies were quick to put up their bills this summer citing the cost of oil and gas at $145 per barrel as the reason. They have shown no comparable speed in reducing their charges now that oil is trading at below $40 a barrel. No wonder the charge of profiteering and acting as an illegal cartel has stuck.

This seething sense of inequity and frustration provides the left with a significant opportunity to mobilise opposition. We have a golden chance to increase our influence acting together on a shared programme.

The SSP campaign is based on the following key demands:

* A £250 winter fuel allowance for all pensioners, unemployed and low-paid, paid for by a windfall tax on the power utilities
* The return of our gas and electricity industries to public ownership as this is the only way that we can guarantee everyone in the country will receive the energy that they need
* Tariffs on prepayment meters should be the reduced to become the cheapest and not the highest rates available
* A programme of investment in fuel efficiency and insulation to bring all homes up to the National Home Energy rating in five years
* An end to our dependence on burning fossil fuels by developing renewable forms of electricity generation

The North Edinburgh Fuel Poverty group has organised a forum in the city which will meet in January to focus on the anger and organise the broadest possible coalition around our shared and coherent programme. The Scottish Socialist Party has been invited to join as equal partners, as have MPs, MSPs and other interested parties.
Let this message ring out across Britain.

The left combined together 20 years ago to stop sheriff officers throwing people out on the street because they didn't have the money to pay the hated poll tax. We can combine again now, notwithstanding our divisions, to stop these hated multinational power companies disconnecting those who don't have the money to pay these exorbitant fuel charges.

In the process, we can show people that only the left will stand up to the profiteering of multinational corporations which seek to plunge millions into the misery of fuel poverty.

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