‘If it rains could you pop into ours to switch that thing on?’ my neighbour said before going away for the weekend. ‘And while you're at it, make yourself a cup of tea; you can also do your washing.’ Their flat was recently flooded, and the company responsible for the leaking roof gave them a dehumidifier and offered to pay their electricity bills until the problem is resolved.
On Monday I went to the launch of the Energy Bill of Rights at the House of Commons. The bill, drafted by Fuel Poverty Action (FPA), includes ‘the right to affordable energy to meet our basic needs’ and ‘the right to properly insulated, well repaired housing that does not waste energy’.
John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, suggested some mechanisms for putting the bill into practice: building a parliamentary platform, getting trade unions involved and using ‘creative forms of direct action’. He talked of the number of people in his constituency expected not to survive the winter because of fuel poverty.
Ruth London of FPA said that more than 10,000 people a year die because of fuel poverty in the UK. There are 3000 prepayment meters installed every day; London compared the companies that run them to loan sharks.
The Green MP Caroline Lucas, who tabled the bill as an early day motion on 23 October, urged people to contact their MPs to persuade them to support it. ‘This agenda is a slightly lonely one here in Parliament,’ she said.
Ellen Lebethe, the chair of the Lambeth Pensioners Action Group, said that they are going to make the Energy Bill of Rights an election issue next year. Addressing the young people in the room, she said: 'We are working for ourselves and for tomorrow's pensioners.'
There were stories of tenants in Carlisle being intimidated and blackmailed, and of solar panels being installed on north-facing roofs. The big six energy companies were condemned as ‘rapacious’. Several speakers said that nobody should have to choose ‘between heating and eating’. There were calls for ‘frontline community resistance’ to stop multinationals exploiting oil-rich countries; for a ‘green industrial revolution’; and for two million low-income homes to be insulated by 2020. Community generation schemes were mentioned; fracking criticised as a false economy.
A woman sitting behind me asked me if I knew anything about the Warm House Discount. I didn't, but found an explanation in FPA’s miniguide to energy users’ rights: it's a one-off £140 discount available this winter to people on a low income or on benefits. Not all energy suppliers are part of the scheme, though. ‘I wanted to go green,’ the woman said, ‘but in the end it wasn't worth switching from EDF to Ovo.’
When I got home, I logged onto my energy supplier's website. ‘You used 67 per cent more than efficient similar E.ON homes,’ it told me. Clicking on ‘What type of homes are compared?’ I got an error message. Below it were energy-saving tips: ‘turn off the lights when they're not needed’ and ‘power down your computer’.