Since Labour’s historic pledge to eliminate child poverty in a generation, poverty data has been at the forefront of political debates. The recession has created unemployment and has moved more people below the poverty line, at the same time as causing rising inequality
The causes of poverty are diverse and a recent government commissioned report has drawn attention to just one of the key factors that is pushing more families into poverty – energy bills.
Fuel poverty has become more of a concern with the cost of household bills rising and this has led to calls for more money to be invested in cutting energy bills. Fuel poverty has been redefined by Professor John Hills, the author of the report, to focus on those households with a low income and also with relatively high energy bills.
Fuel poverty is undoubtedly concerning from a moral point of view – indeed, knowing that some families are unable to afford to heat their homes causes disutility for others. However, there are also wider economic implications. If families are unable to provide heating, this may adversely affect their children’s ability to learn and complete their homework, thus negatively affecting their productivity today and arguable causing further problems in their future. While this may have little effect today, the cumulative effect on economic productivity could be substantial in the long run. Inefficiency for the macroeconomy is therefore a problem, as a child’s productive potential will not be fully realized. Furthermore, there are also health concerns, as the government notes – fuel poverty is linked to 2,700 deaths per year. Again, this creates a blight on society, but it also poses economic problems, not least due to the strain on the NHS.
Fuel poverty has long been identified as a problem that needs addressing and as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said:
‘Fuel poverty is a serious national problem and this government remains committed to doing all it can to tackle it and make sure that the help available reaches those who need it most.’
Action is already taking place to insulate the poorest homes, as a means of cutting their energy bills and the government’s ‘Warm Homes Discount’ aims to provide help to the lowest income households in paying their bills. However, there are concerns that more households will move into fuel poverty, as this new definition doesn’t include those slightly wealthier households who still have high bills or the poorer households with relatively low bills. With the economy still in a vulnerable state, the latest data showing further rises in unemployment and household bills becoming increasingly expensive, the issue of fuel poverty is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The following articles consider this issue.
Fuel poverty seen for 3 million households by 2016 Reuters (16/3/12)
Fuel poverty to rise to 8.5m, report warns (including video) BBC News, Damian Kahya (15/3/12)
Nine million will live in ‘fuel poverty’ in the next four years Independent, Simon Read (16/3/12)
Fuel poverty to rise sharply Telegraph, James Hall (16/3/12)
Call for urgent action on fuel poverty Financial Times, Sarah Neville (15/3/12)
Fuel poverty worse than estimated The Press Association (15/3/12)
3 million fuel-poor households by 2016, report claims Guardian, Mark King and Zammy Fairhurst (15/3/12)
- What are the causes of poverty?
- How has the definition of fuel poverty changed? Is the change a good one? Think about the equity and efficiency of such a change.
- The BBC News article says that government measures to alleviate fuel poverty could be regressive. What is meant by this and why could this be the case?
- What are the economic consequences of fuel poverty?
- We can estimate poverty by looking at the poverty headcount or the poverty gap. What is the difference between these two measures? Which one is a more accurate measure of poverty?
- Are there any other actions that you think would be effective in alleviating fuel poverty? Would they be cost effective?
- Why does Age UK fear ‘the current proposals to improve energy efficiency through the Green Deal and energy obligation schemes are a woefully inadequate response to one of the most serious issues facing our country today’?
A weekly expense for most families is filling up their car(s) with petrol, but this activity is becoming increasingly expensive and is putting added pressure on lower and middle income families in particular. For those families on lower incomes, a tank of petrol represents a much larger percentage of their income than it does for a higher income household. Assuming that petrol for a month costs you £70 and your monthly income is £500, as a percentage of your income, a tank of petrol costs you 14%. Whereas, if your income is £900, the percentage falls to 7.7% and with a monthly take-home pay of £2000, the cost of a month’s petrol as a percentage of your income is just 3.5%. This is a stark indication of why those on lower incomes feel the burden of higher petrol prices (and indeed, higher prices for any essential items) more than other families.
The price of petrol will today be debated by MPs, following an e-petition signed by more than 100,000 people and having the support of more than 100 MPs. When in power, the Labour government proposed automatic fuel-tax increases, but these were scrapped by the Coalition. However, in January, the government plans to increase fuel duty by 3p a litre and further increases in prices are expected in August in line with inflation. This could mean that the price of unleaded petrol rises to over 1.40p per litre.
And it’s not just households that are feeling the squeeze. The situation described in the first paragraph is just as relevant to firms. The smaller firms, with lower turnover and profits are feeling the squeeze of higher petrol prices more than their larger counterparts. Any businesses that have to transport goods, whether to customers or from wholesalers to retailers etc, are seeing their costs rise, as a tank of petrol is requiring more and more money. To maintain profit margins, firms must pass these cost increases on to their customers in the form of higher prices. Alternatively, they keep prices as they were and take a hit on profitability. If prices rise, they lose customers and if prices are maintained, profitability suffers, which for some companies, already struggling due to the recession, may not be an option.
Mr. Halfon, the Tory MP whose motion launched the e-petition said that fuel prices were causing ‘immense difficulties’ and the Shadow Treasury Minister Owen Smith has said:
‘With our economic recovery choked off well before the recent eurozone crisis, we need action.’
With inflation at 5.2% (I’m writing an hour or so before new inflation data is released on 15/11/11), higher prices for many goods is putting pressure on households. This is possibly contributing towards sluggish growth, as households have less and less disposable income to spend on other goods, after they have purchased their essential items, such as groceries and petrol. A criticism leveled at oil companies is that they quickly pass on price rises, as the world price of oil increases, but do not pass on cuts in oil prices. The issues raised in the debate and how George Osborne and David Cameron respond, together with inflation data for the coming months, may play a crucial role in determining just how much a tank of petrol will cost in the new year.
MPs to debate motion calling for half in petrol prices BBC News (15/11/11)
Petrol price rise: David Cameron faces Commons revolt after No10 e-petition Guardian, Cherry Wilson (15/11/11)
David Cameron faces backbench rebellion over fuel price hike Telegraph, Rowena Mason (14/11/11)
Petrol prices may be slashed by Rs 2 per litre on November 16 The Economic Times (15/11/11)
Paying the price as fuel costs rise BBC News (15/11/10)
Oil barons the big winners from soaring pump prices, ONS figures reveal Daily Mirror, Graham Hiscott (15/11/11)
Scrap rise in petrol duty: 100 MPs demand Osborne abandon planned 3p increase Mail Online, Ray Massey and Tim Shipman (15/11/11)
- As the price of petrol rises, why do people continue to buy it? What does it suggest about the elasticity of this product?
- Why do higher prices affect lower income families more than higher income families?
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against George Osborne’s planned 3p rise in petrol duty?
- Do you think that higher prices are contributing towards sluggish growth? Why?
- What type of tax is imposed on petrol? Is it equitable? Is it efficient?
- Why can the oil companies pass price rises on to petrol stations, but delay passing on any price reductions? Is there a need for better regulation and more pressure on oil companies to change their behaviour?