THE crisis is real, and it is already upon us. Fuel poverty is no mere abstraction.

It was a sobering experience, earlier this week, to see the highly paid bosses of energy companies coming together to warn MPs that “truly horrific” energy price rises this winter could result in four in 10 of us having to endure fuel poverty.

The words of Keith Anderson, chief executive at ScottishPower, bear repetition.

He told the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee: “It’s got to a stage now where I honestly believe the size and scale of this is beyond what I can deal with – it’s beyond what I think this industry can deal with – and I think it needs a massive shift, a significant shift, in the Government policy and approach towards this”.

He suggested that, in October, £1,000 be taken off the bills of poorer customers, including those on pre-payment meters, and put into a fund that could then be repaid over 10 years by all consumers, or partially financed by the government.

Pointing out the disfiguring fact that those on pre-payment meters actually pay more, Mr Anderson said that a social tariff should be introduced to discount the price both for them and for customers in the grip of fuel poverty, with the cost being borne by those who can afford to pay.

Michael Lewis, his counterpart at Eon, predicted that customer debts would climb by £800 million over the year and that price increases would push as much as 40 per cent of the population into fuel poverty. This could, in turn, lead to a significant increase in bad debt.

An online advice page run by Citizens Advice Scotland has seen a 127% increase in views compared to February of last year and is now at its highest number of views since April 2020. Its title – “Struggling to pay your energy bills” – says it all, as does the fact that views of that another webpage, “Get help with bills”, increased 40% from January. It is now at its highest peak since the end of March 2020.

Last week alone, ScottishPower received no less than 8,000 calls from customers worried about the steep rise in their bills.

Can there be any doubt that this is the key domestic crisis now facing us?

The recent rises in gas and electricity bills were bad enough. There may now be a lull in consumption during summer, but an appalling increase threatens to materialise in October, just in time for winter.

No one will be spared, regardless of income. It is impossible not to feel for poorer families, for those already enduring fuel poverty, and for pensioners who will spend more time indoors than other age groups will.

Businesses, too, already embarked on a long and painful quest to regain their pre-pandemic fortunes, are expressing fears about the looming energy price increases.

The cost-of-living crisis is, as Citizens Advice Scotland points out, squeezing household budgets to breaking point: soaring prices and incomes that are either flat or falling. It is a “perfect storm” that could sweep tens of thousands of Scots into poverty, debt and destitution.

So what is to be done? The nagging question remains: is there nothing that the energy companies themselves can do? Centrica, the owner of British Gas, declared recently that its adjusted operating profits rose by 112% per cent to £948m in 2021, boosted by surging profits from its North Sea oil and gas business.

Such profits are by no means unusual in the sector: no wonder the demand for a one-off windfall tax keeps being made. The Fuel Poverty Action group has devised an interesting scheme whereby everyone will receive a free amount of energy to cover such basics as heating, cooking and lighting, with the pricing system being funded by a windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas producers, traders and suppliers.

More than a few consumer groups have made the point that the energy companies have, in the narrow interests of their balance sheets, increased prices by more than was strictly necessary. The energy regulator, Ofgem, has signalled that increases in fuel bills are to be investigated. Direct debits will be subjected to a searching examination.

Mr Anderson’s suggestions are surely worth pursuing. Eon’s Michael Lewis, too, has called for significant, unprecedented government intervention.

Something, surely, has to happen. The Westminster Government has been studiedly slow to detect the looming problem and even slower to offer meaningful assistance. The Chancellor in his Spring Statement had it in his power to offer such help, but his lukewarm measures were greeted with widespread disappointment.

Boris Johnson has pledged to take further (as yet unspecified) action on energy bills but has rejected calls by many of his own backbenchers to scrap green levies that currently add around £150 a year to the average electricity bill.

Scotland, for its part, has made considerable strides in renewable energies. And, whilst the prospect of new oil and gas fields in the North Sea is a welcome one, these will do nothing to help in the short or medium term. In the meantime, many people will feel outraged that they are facing punitive rises in energy bills despite living in an energy-abundant country like Scotland. With food banks already reporting record use across the UK, and further price shocks in the pipeline, the Westminster Government cannot continue to sit on its hands for much longer.



Happy 96th, ma’am

SHE has, as Queen, been a steady, reassuring constant in British public life since her coronation in the summer of 1953.

Dignified and unflappable, devoted to her lifelong sense of duty and content to keep her own counsel, she has seen many Prime Ministers come and go, has seen her beloved country change so much and, closer to home, has witnessed her own family enduring its share of crises, too many of them self-inflicted. Just over a year ago she was left bereft when her consort died after 73 years of marriage.

For all her years as our monarch, it sometimes seem that we hardly know the Queen. Even at 96 she remains, by and large, an enigma. But Britain would have indisputably been a poorer place without her. You do not need to be an ardent monarchist to admire her numerous qualities, the valuable yet understated sense of dependability, wisdom and continuity she represents.

It is a pity her birthday week was, to a small extent, overshadowed by the petulant intervention of the Duke of Sussex. He and his equally self-regarding wife have been anything but dignified of late – but, as ever, the Queen’s reputation as a global phenomenon who merits our respect and affection will remain intact. They would do well to learn from her.