It's time to push for an energy social tariff for the benefit of all
Scotland is a land of paradoxes. There’s the huge wealth generated by Scotch whisky, enriching multinationals and boosting the Chancellor’s coffers, all while waits for alcohol treatment lengthen and addiction services decline.
Even funds generated by Minimum Unit Price, forcing up the cost of cheap high strength alcohol go to corporate profit, not social need.
The refusal of the Chancellor to allow the Scottish Parliament the powers to levy that unearned gain is simply disgraceful.
But while that’s absurd, the truly perverse paradox is that a land that’s energy rich has so many of its people in fuel poverty. The British Prime Minister can jet north to trumpet the importance of North Sea Oil and Gas to the UK plc, yet those closest to its shores in Scotland are devoid of the benefit – something that has tragically been the case for several generations now.
The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund is but a dream to a cash-strapped Holyrood and councils on their uppers. The fossil fuel sector requires to come to an end with only the pace and scale in debate, not the “extract every last drop as quickly as possible of Sunak” but a just transition to renewables.
But with that new and natural bounty which Scotland’s been blessed, the paradox and perversity are even more stark. A land abounding in clean energy, both on and off its shores, and where domestic energy supply is almost entirely able to be provided by renewable energy, instead sees prices set by the high cost of European gas and huge profits made by suppliers.
All while more and more Scots can see the turbines turning or hydro schemes working but simply can’t afford to heat their homes.
Huge wealth is being made by the few, while hardship is being faced by the many – creating yet another paradox that while corporate profits from energy have often never been greater, more citizens than ever before are unable to afford it at all.
That’s why a social tariff is needed for energy. It applies in many countries in Europe and has even been hinted at by Tory Ministers here. Ofgem has confirmed it’s possible, but it requires the direction of ministers.
Many, including myself, had assumed it was almost a given but as Parliament returns and even a consultation hasn’t begun, fears that it’s not coming are growing.
Energy prices may have dropped 17% over recent months but they remain higher than last winter, without the support, and indeed of the one before that. The days of cheap and affordable energy seem halcyon now.
The Energy Price Guarantee is but an average and doesn’t take into account either individual need or geographic location. Of course, the blanket that support was given to every household last winter is perhaps unaffordable and maybe even undesirable. The amount spent funding holiday home and second home owners last winter, while so many more still struggled, showed the need for targeting.
But a social tariff would allow access to power at reduced prices to the poorest and most vulnerable. And that’s essential. The paradox of increased corporate profits amid worsening fuel poverty must end. It’s nothing to do with war in Ukraine or European energy prices, it’s about political will.
Winter is looming and many face it with fear and trepidation. It’s not simply unpleasant but dangerous, as was shown by the surge in hypothermia cases noted by the Scottish Ambulance Service last winter.
Energy costs also affect not just access to heat but also to power and the consequences go beyond heating your home. It’s bad enough that many require to wear outdoor clothing indoors or huddle in one room or around a small and flimsy heat source. The issue goes far beyond that and even well beyond the dampness worsened by lack of heat in an already poor-quality build.
Being unable to afford to put the power on or limiting what you use affects so many other aspects of life. The supposed benign euphemism of self-disconnection masks the reality of pain and misery. It’s as much a sham as the term legitimate target to a terrorist or collateral damage to a military source.
It’s the ability of a mum to wash her children’s clothes so they can be smart for school, or a parent seeking to power up the laptop provided by the school so their child can learn; the worker needing to keep their mobile phone charged to seek work or be advised of shifts; being able to cook a hot and nourishing meal for the family even if it’s only in the microwave.
All of those are in essentials in our modern society. But it also goes beyond that to maintaining life itself. Those who are on dialysis or require other healthcare equipment in their home need to keep it on. It’s been provided by the NHS for a medical purpose, not as an ornament, and that means having it switched on and being able to meet the cost that comes with it.
That essential clinical need also goes beyond the medical hardware and includes the requirement for warmth and nourishment. Those recovering not just from cancer but other illnesses or treatments feel the cold more and require temperatures to be kept high, as well as needing healthy food to build up strength once again.
We’re now into autumn and winter looms. Energy prices will be unaffordable for the poorest and most vulnerable unless action’s taken now. It’s not just about the misery that will be endured by most but the damage to quality of life for so many and even the threat to life for some.
A social tariff should be a given in a just society and the paradox of fuel poverty amid energy plenty is simply perverse.
First Published in The National 4th September 2023