Given the short term thinking that bedevils much political thinking, we can be forgiven for looking cynically at government targets that stretch long ahead of the political cycle. However, sometimes they catch up with governments. One such legislative target is the eradication of fuel poverty in Scotland by November 2016.
This target is given some focus for me today, as I am chairing a session at the annual conference of the fuel poverty charity Energy Action Scotland. UNISON Scotland is affiliated to this campaigning charity that also delivers a wide range of practical actions to help alleviate fuel poverty.
Fuel poverty is defined as a household having to spend 10% or more of its income on energy to maintain a warm home. When I first got involved it was almost exclusively an issue for the elderly - no longer.
A recent report by Citizen's Advice Scotland told the story of a father of a two-week old baby who was left without any money for gas and electricity, after being told he had to wait two weeks for a Universal Credit payment. Another case in the east of Scotland involved a couple with a nine-month-old baby girl being left without any money for food or gas and electricity. Their benefit was stopped by the Department of Work and Pensions after it claimed a sick note had not been received - even though it had been sent the previous week.
According to CAS, the number of Scots in 'fuel poverty' has soared by 130% in the past five years, with shocking cases of struggling households being left for months without any means of heating or cooking. They dealt with 28,000 cases involving energy issues in 2014-15 – an increase of a third from the previous year and up 130% since 2011.
Energy Action Scotland's Director Norrie Kerr, has also said that they see a lot of younger people in fuel poverty who are on the minimum wage or less than the minimum wage, who are really struggling just to make ends meet: “It is not just about pensioners any more, it is about in-work poverty. When you are being squeezed like that there is the very real dilemma for people between heating and eating. In some cases foodbanks are being asked for food parcels that don’t require people to heat anything, because they are frightened to put on the cooker to boil a pan of pasta or heat a tin of beans."
So, are we going to meet the legislative requirement to eliminate fuel poverty by November 2016? Based on what we heard at today's conference, almost certainly not. Are we making sufficient effort to try and reach this target? Again probably not.
One particular disappointment is the Scottish Government's decision to postpone a consultation on energy efficiency measures in private sector housing. This is the fastest growing housing sector and landlords need help and support, and tenants need protection against unjustified rent increases. CAS covered this issue well in their report 'Coming in from the Cold'.
Funds have been made available for fuel poverty, but it simply isn't enough. We heard about a some measures and more task groups and reviews. As with other policy areas we are very good in Scotland at analysing the problem - less good at making difficult decisions to solve them. Equally the UK government programmes are also inadequate, but as some are to be devolved, we have an opportunity to bring programmes together and do some things differently.
Energy efficiency is only one aspect of the measures needed to tackle fuel poverty. The other two are the price of energy and income support. Action on prices have been limited with the cost going up by 180% between 2002 and 2013. If prices had gone up with inflation fuel poverty in Scotland would be below 11% of households, instead of 39%. It has only been helped very recently by the drop in wholesale prices - rather than government action over the failed energy market.
Government's put great emphasis on switching supplier and there has been some increased take up recently. However, it is far from a smooth process. I recently switched supplier and was presented with an absurd estimated opening gas reading that was almost double my last bill. As a consequence I was presented with a bill for £3,600!
On income support, the U.K. Government's slashing of social security is having a devastating impact on low income families in and out of work. We should also not forget the cut in real wages over a decade or more. This is something the Scottish Government could do more on, including the living wage for care workers. As Jackie Baillie reminded us today, the £1300 cut in Tax Credits is the equivalent of the average annual fuel bill.
If the same number of people suffering from fuel poverty had an illness or disease we would be crying out for the government to take action by pouring resources into the NHS. It's time to treat fuel poverty with the priority it deserves.