Sharon spoke in a debate in the Commons chamber on a Labour motion calling for structural reform of the energy market, as well as a 20 month freeze in prices.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): There are 6,196 households in my constituency that are in fuel poverty, using the 10% of income measure, but those statistics are from 2011 and are the most recent. Since then prices have risen at least twice, while real wages are stagnating, so I am sure those figures will be much higher now. Energy prices are a key driver of the Prime Minister’s cost of living crisis, which has seen on average £1,200 wiped off the real value of the annual incomes of working people in the north-east.
Those fuel poverty figures do not tell the whole story. They do not show the households on the borderline of fuel poverty or those that may have a decent income, but for which energy costs are just one of a number of ever-rising costs that they have to meet, such as rent, child care bills, kids’ clothes, school uniforms, food and groceries. It is this reality that this Prime Minister and this Government do not understand. It is all very well telling people to wear a jumper around the house. Does the Prime Minister not realise that people do that already, my family included?
In the north-east, where it gets cold from September onwards, we put blankets over our legs when we watch telly. Some people even use quilts to keep warm, especially the elderly. There is a whole north-south divide element to this debate that needs to be addressed. As someone who lives in both places all year round, I know that there is regularly a 10° C difference, and that is without the added wind chill factor. According to the BBC’s weather forecast, at 4 o’clock today, when I last checked, it was 14° C in London and 8° C in Sunderland, and that is a mild gap. What about those who have to wear jumpers or layers of clothing when they go to bed at night because they have been unable to put the heating on all evening, or all week?
Why are energy prices rising? As we have heard, average wholesale prices have risen by just 1.6% a year since 2011, which accounts for around £16 of the increase in bills since 2011, but consumers’ bills have risen by 10.4% on average. That is six times more, at around £100 a year. That is being used to fund the fat-cat salaries of the big six and double the profits for their shareholders. Are Ministers really telling the residents and small businesses of Washington and Sunderland West, including the 6,196 households living in fuel poverty, that they would rather stand up for the right of the big six to boost their profits than for the people they are elected to this place to serve?
We must not lose sight of the fact that it is still the very poorest and most vulnerable of my constituents who pay the highest unit costs for their energy because they are on prepayment meters. They cannot switch to cheaper rates because there is very little competition, if any, for their business. They cannot pay a set amount by direct debit each month to spread the cost of winter over the rest of the year because the energy companies will not give them that credit facility. If they cannot afford the £10 to top up the meter, the lights and boiler just do not go on.
The energy company executives who appeared before the Energy and Climate Change Committee last week assured my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) that they would not cut off the elderly or disabled this winter, but those on prepayment meters cannot just keep using their heating; they are cut off the minute they run out of money or emergency credit.
Mr Anderson: My hon. Friend will remember from the days when she worked with me in Unison that we had discussions with the energy people when they changed to prepayment meters, meaning that people now self-disconnect. Companies can now say that they no longer cut people off or have responsibility for that, but those people are forced to disconnect themselves. The number of people in this country who live without access to heat, fuel and warmth because they have no choice is hidden, and that is a disgrace.
Mrs Hodgson: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I would like to know what advice the energy company executives will give all those people. Will they offer them a deal they can afford in order to keep warm this winter, as they said they would during the Select Committee hearing?
I am going to share something quite personal today. I know that there are some MPs, although not many, whose background is similar to mine. I grew up in poverty. I know what it is like to have no central heating, and I know what it is like when you then have central heating not to be able to put it on because your mam cannot afford it. I know what it is like to wake up so cold that you cannot bear to undress to get washed and ready for school. I know what it is like to have a thick layer of ice on the inside of your bedroom window—I used to think everybody did in winter. I know what it is like to have the electricity man knock on your door and cut of your power when you are 13-years-old and minding your two younger brothers while your mam has popped out to see your nanna because it is the middle of winter. I know what it is like to sit and wait, scared in the cold and dark, until your mam comes home, trying to keep two little boys occupied and make them feel safe.
That was in 1979, the first year of the previous Tory Government, and the year I was politicised and realised what it actually meant to have a Tory Government. My mam was not feckless; we were poor. There is a difference. A lot of people living in fuel poverty today are working. They are not feckless either, but there is a cost of living crisis beyond their control and not of their making.
I know that 34 years later some families still have experiences similar to mine. I remember talking to a member of staff at a Sure Start children’s centre who told me about the mothers of young children who often came to the centre with their child for hours at a time because it was warm and they were unable to use their appliances or TV at home because they could not afford to top up the meter.
I have recently heard about heat buddies in the north-east—groups of people who go to each other’s homes in turn to save heating their home in the evening. I have also heard that bath houses are being requested—in 21st-century Britain—because people do not have the money to heat their homes or water, so they wash with a kettleful of water in a sink and cannot face even trying to boil enough water for a bath as their home is too cold for them to bathe in. For goodness’ sake, Mr Speaker, what sort of country are we living in? Is it Victorian Britain? Is it Dickensian Britain?
Mr Anderson: Tory Britain.
Mrs Hodgson: Tory Britain—exactly. What are the Government doing for these people? What they need—what we all need—is an energy market that is forced to work in the interests of consumers, not shareholders. But until a Labour Government have the opportunity to make the required changes stated in the motion, they need a Prime Minister with the bottle and the guts to tell the energy companies that enough is enough—that people in 21st-century Britain should be able to have a bath in their own home and to go to bed warm enough to wear just a nightie or a pair of pyjamas, and not to die because of the cold with central heating they cannot afford to use.
Toby Perkins: I very much appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying—she is making a very powerful speech. The problem is not that the Prime Minister does not have the courage to stand up to the energy companies; it is that it is not in his make-up to stand up to the energy companies. It is not what he wants to do; it is not what he came into politics to do. He is not in politics to stop the energy companies making profits and to make consumers better off.
Mrs Hodgson: Is not the country all the worse for that? Well, I hope that the Prime Minister and his Government sleep warm in their beds at night, because huge numbers of people in the country he governs certainly do not, and will not this winter.
I would like to wrap up my remarks by quoting some extracts from a letter that I received a couple of weeks ago from Mrs Templeton, a constituent of mine from Biddick in Washington. Mrs Templeton wrote:
“I am writing to say how disgusted me and my hubby are about the rise in energy prices…Mr Miliband says he will freeze prices in 2015, but what can be done now?...I cannot believe the country is taking this on the chin...we should fight back…The top people in these companies will not worry about the increase, but believe me, most of the country are afraid of putting their heating on.”
There are millions of Mrs Templetons across the country—people who are sick of their bills keeping on going up but never coming down, sick of seeing energy companies’ profits ballooning while they have to choose between heating and eating, and sick of this Prime Minister doing nothing about it but defend the status quo. If he does not have the strength to fight back on behalf of Mrs Templeton and all those other people across this country, I suggest that he should stand aside and let someone who does do so.