POLITICS
02/12/2013 08:15 GMT | Updated 02/12/2013 08:17 GMT

Ministers Accused Of Reducing Fuel Poverty By Changing The Definition

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File photo dated 15/09/13 of Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey at the Liberal Democrats' autumn conference in Glasgow, the Energy Secretary is unveiling details of a review into competition within the energy market later today, as divisions over how to address spiralling household bills continue to dominate political debate.

Every government wants to reduce the number of people living in poverty - whether it's fuel poverty or child poverty.

One way, of course, is to simply change the definition of what being poor is.

The coalition government has been accused of "shifting the goalposts" to bring down the number of households classed as living in fuel poverty.

Amendments to the Energy Bill would change definitions so that 2.4 million are classed as fuel poor rather than 3.2 million.

A report from the Commons Environmental Audit Committee pointed out that currently families fall into the category if they spend more than 10% of income on fuel "to maintain an adequate level of warmth".

But the new indicator would mean they were only regarded as in hardship if they have "above average fuel costs" that would leave them with "a residual income below the official poverty line".

Joan Walley, the Labour MP who chairs the cross-party committee, said: "The government is shifting the goalposts on fuel poverty so that official statistics record far fewer households as fuel-poor.

"The changes to the fuel poverty definition and target, in part being made through amendments to the Energy Bill, should be stopped unless the Government is prepared to make a public commitment to end fuel poverty altogether."

Walley warned that the coalition's shake-up of green levies - intended to shave £50 off average annual bills - could end up hitting fuel poor households.

"A short-term bid to cut bills must not throw energy and climate change policy off-course," she said. "In the longer term green levies could actually keep bills down if they drive energy efficiency improvements that cut the cost of heating our homes.

"Insulating homes and supporting green technologies is vital to help the fuel poor and cut the emissions causing climate change."

Jenny Saunders, the chief executive of the fuel poverty charity the NEA, told HuffPost UK: “Whilst we welcome attempts to provide all energy consumers with some short term relief from soaring energy prices, NEA believes more could be done within the Autumn Statement. For example, we have been encouraging the Government to remove VAT on the levies we all pay through our bills."

“On energy efficiency, whilst relieved that the government has taken steps to ensure there is no reduction in the current annual delivery rate of the parts of the ECO programme that support low-income and vulnerable householders, the exact nature of this is critical. More broadly, we urgently need a much more ambitious plan that explicitly helps the poorest households who live in the least energy efficient homes."

In response, a Department of Energy & Climate Change spokesman said:"The changes to the fuel poverty definition helps to get a better understanding of the causes and depth of fuel poverty, and to target policies more effectively.

"There is already a range of help for those in most need, including the Warm Home Discount, Winter Fuel Payments and Cold Weather Payments."

Professor John Hills, the director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the LSE, said it was not a "fair accusation" to accuse ministers of moving the goalposts on fuel poverty.

"The new definition focuses attention on those who have both low incomes and have higher than typical heating costs, and allows measurement of the depth of the problem. This should help focus action those who are worst affected, rather than those who are just on the edge of the current definition," he said.

Professor Hills said the current measure meant that at times of high fuel prices it can mean people even with quite high incomes being counted as 'fuel poor'.

"At other times it has made it look as if we were making much greater progress in reducing the problem than we really were," he added.

It is also not the first time the coalition has been accused of fiddling the figures. Earlier this year the coalition was attacked by a group of leading academics, including professor Hills, for trying to "dilute" the way it measured child poverty to cover up the fact it was rising.