MSPs back plans to reduce fuel poverty but further action demanded

A new strategy to tackle fuel poverty in Scotland has been backed by MSPs despite concerns the plans “lack ambition.”

The Scottish Parliament supported in principle proposals to try and reduce the number of households in fuel poverty to 5% by 2040.

Introducing the Bill at its first stage, Housing Minister Kevin Stewart said: “In this day and age it’s unacceptable that any Scottish household should have to make a choice between putting the heating on and cooking their dinner.

“If Scotland is to become a fairer, more socially-just society, it’s crucial that we make a real headway towards ending the scourge of fuel poverty.”

A household is currently considered to be fuel poor if in order to maintain a satisfactory heating regime, it has to spend more than 10% of its income on all household fuel use.

However, Mr Stewart revealed the Scottish Government wants to introduce a new definition of fuel poverty “which makes innovative use of the minimum income standard in order to better-align fuel poverty with relative-income poverty”.

He also proposed the Government reports every five years on the policy’s progress, although convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee James Dornan argued for this to happen every three years.

Mr Dornan said: “Recent statistics shows that fuel poverty affects 24.9% of households in Scotland, with some people and families struggling to pay for their fuel bills or heat their homes to an acceptable and comfortable level.

“This Bill has the potential to make a difference to the lives of many families in Scotland.

“However, the real test will be whether the measures and strategies that are coming are practical, deliverable and robust.

“It will be the job of this Parliament to keep a watch on this in the coming years.”

Although the Bill passed at the first stage with unanimous approval, opposition MSPs urged the Scottish Government to make the legislation tougher – with Greens MSP Andy Wightman suggesting the 5% target could possibly be achieved by 2032 instead of 2040.

Mr Wightman said his party would bring forward amendments to the legislation at stage two, as he told MSPs: “A 2032 target does reflect a higher level of ambition and is preferable.

“And if it cannot be achieved we will know in advance.”

He said: “This Bill does represent an important part of tackling fuel poverty – but it’s not in a fit state to deliver what is required.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Paul Simpson, who sits on the Local Government Committee that scrutinised the plans, described the proposals as “well meaning, but they lack ambition”.

He said: “This should have been a far-reaching and exciting piece of legislation, but it’s anything but.

“It can change, though. You could replace the six pages of the Bill with a six-line press release and achieve the same thing.”

However, he welcomed the provisions for islands and remote parts of the country and added: “Fuel poverty rates in urban Scotland have improved since 2015, but rates in rural areas have not.”

Meanwhile Labour’s Pauline McNeill said the proposals “fall short in many areas”.

She added: “It has to sound more like real ambition to prevent more people from living in cold, draughty homes.”

Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur said it is “essential we show more ambition in what we seek to achieve”.

The Orkney MSP spoke about the higher heating bills people living in remote and island communities can face, as he argued the Bill does “not as it stands adequately take into account the additional costs associated with living in remote and rural areas of Scotland”.