In February, I reported the fact that the Government had underspent £130m of digital TV switchover money that was destined for the over-75s. The money was supposed to offer financial and technical assistance for set-top boxes, to ensure that the vulnerable were able to continue to watch free-to-air TV channels. The fund has now built up to a figure of around £200m and OfCom has decided, as part of the Digital Britain report, that the money can be used to pay for the Government’s much trumpeted universal Broadband pledge.
£200m, it seems, is not enough – so a “landline tax” will be introduced that will equate to around £6 per year for each household that is connected to a telephone landline (be it BT, Virgin or one of the other numerous carriers). It’s estimated that this “landline tax” will generate between £150m-£175m per year towards the plans, with the ultimate goal being superfast broadband across the entire country, including remote and rural areas where the economics would not support a commercial solution.
While I wholeheartedly support this initiative by the UK Government to offer super-fast broadband to every part of the country, I have to question the priority of this scheme over, say, a UK-wide fund that could end fuel poverty with millions of people across Britain struggling to afford to heat their homes, including four out of five single pensioners.
I would happily pay an extra £6 per year on my fuel bill if it meant that millions could be lifted out of Fuel Poverty and this is the cornerstone of Liberal Democrat MP David Heath’s Fuel Poverty Bill. It would have delivered a massive home insulation programme which would halve the energy needed to heat the average home. And it would have ended the scandal of those who use pre-pay meters – generally the least well-off – paying higher rates for their gas and electricity.
Unfortunately, the bill was defeated by Labour when it had it’s reading in Parliament and without Government support the bill looks dead in the water.
Sadly, year after year the Government have failed to take the necessary action to deliver on their statutory targets to end fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010 and in other households by 2016. They have been repeatedly taken to task by their own Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, whose last annual report contained the damning verdict: “The Government’s policies and lack of action have now made it impossible to meet the 2010 target”. In fact, last autumn Help the Aged and Friends of the Earth took the Government to court for failing to comply with their legal commitment. Disappointingly, in a perverse judgment (which is being appealed) the High Court let the Government off the hook by ruling that the targets were merely “aspirations”.
More than 20,000 people die from the cold during the winter and many more become ill. The average fuel bill is now more than double what it was five years ago, and energy prices continue to rise. Urgent measures are needed to help people who are struggling to heat their homes. The energy measures in the Bill will reduce households’ energy use by up to 70 per cent.
I admit that I have an ulterior motive in seeing my taxes spent on home insulation rather than home broadband, since I am a home insulation surveyor by trade – but I would feel a bit more positive about giving up £6 a year if I felt it was going to someone less fortunate than myself to ensure they had a warm home to live in, rather than a fast connection to my blog.