Secrecy law change to save pensioners from fuel poverty

Craig Woodhouse,Matt Williams
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:04

The Government is planning to reform data protection laws so pensioners in fuel poverty can be contacted directly and offered help, it was announced today.

The move is one of a series of measures being unveiled to help vulnerable and elderly people with their fuel bills.

The proposals will see assistance given to households to improve their energy efficiency, cut costs and ensure they are on the best value tariff with their gas and electricity providers.

But campaigners criticised the plan for being a mere "reshuffling" of old ideas that did not go far enough to alleviate fuel poverty.

Fuel poverty is said to occur when a household pays more than 10% of its income on energy bills.

Among the measures being announced today is a plan to tell energy companies which people are struggling most with their fuel bills so they can be offered assistance.

Energy minister Malcolm Wicks said he appreciated the matter would have to be dealt with "sensitively", but it was important to help as household bills continue to rise.

He said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "One of the best ways to tackle fuel poverty is to make sure the heat, and the fuel that is used as it's so costly, keeps people warm and doesn't go out the window.

"The problem has been that because of data protection laws we haven't always been able to say to the electricity or gas company 'This is the person that needs that help', so we're taking measures ... to reform the Pensions Bill that's going through Parliament at the moment so that we can cut through some of these data protection issues."

Mr Wicks said people would be approached by their energy companies and offered the assistance.

He added: "We have to do that sensitively because none of us like personal data being spread around the place willy-nilly, so we're discussing that with people like Help The Aged to make sure that we get that right, but I think its sensible to get that new power for us to focus the help that's available."

Other measures announced today include a pilot scheme to ensure people applying for Warm Front grants are referred to their energy supplier for tariff advice.

In addition, £150,000 will be put into the rolling out of watchdog Ofgem's national Citizens Advice Bureau awareness campaign on social assistance for the vulnerable.

Ministers also pledged £3 million as part of the low carbon building programme to encourage microgeneration - small scale alternative energy schemes - among fuel-poor communities.

Mr Wicks admitted that the days of £1,000 household energy bills were on the way, adding: "What I'm concerned about today with fellow ministers is to make sure that the considerable resources out there, particularly in terms of energy efficiency, really reaches the hardest-hit people in terms of rising fuel bills."

But campaigners said the measures did not go far enough.

Kate Jopling, head of public affairs at Help the Aged, described them as "a sticking plaster to hold back a catastrophe".

She said: "While it is welcome news that the Government is moving in the right direction on fuel poverty, this initiative does not go nearly far enough to deal with the looming fuel poverty crisis."

Ed Matthew, warm homes campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "The new fuel poverty measures announced today won't fix the problem - people will still be left out in the cold.

"The only way to warm up our four million fuel-poor homes is to super-insulate them and help them produce their own energy.

"The Government must stop reshuffling the same tired old ideas and instead jump-start a widespread and strategic programme of energy efficiency and renewable energy."

The two campaign groups are pursuing a judicial review of the Government's fuel poverty policies.

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