Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

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Warm Front: helping to combat fuel poverty (1216-i)

Public Accounts Committee 22 Oct 2003

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Evidence presented on Wednesday 22 October 2003 by Sir Brian Bender KCB, Mr Jeremy Eppel, Mr Chris Leek and Mr Garry Worthington.

Q37 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It is not a very good report, is it? It is not really achieving what you intended to achieve. Why does it have to be in a particular sector? Why does it need to be in social housing? Why can it not be those people who are in fuel poverty helped?

Sir Brian Bender: We are addressing the social sector through the decent homes standard. When the Committee of Public Accounts last looked at this issue, it was partly as a result of that that we decided to apply Warm Front to the private sector and have a different set of measures through standards ----

Q38 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It seems to me that if you are in fuel poverty, it does not matter where you live; you are still cold, are you not?

Sir Brian Bender: You are cold and the question is what is the most effective set of measures to do this in a situation that is ----

Q39 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You are not achieving it.

Sir Brian Bender: We are helping vulnerable people.

Q40 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Why not give the people who need assistance assistance? The big difficulty is the Civil Service, is it not? You create a scheme and you create managers for that scheme. Then you create assistant managers and then you create assistant assistant managers. Eventually, what is left is used to find the people who actually need the help. At the end of the day, very few people get the help and you cannot find who they are. Why can you not just go out and find them?

Sir Brian Bender: If you are looking for fuel poverty, the only accurate and precise method for doing it depends on calculating the household income. You will know better than I that that is not easy and it is a very sensitive thing to find out. We are trying to address proxies for that.

Q41 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I received this this morning from Eaga. I do not know if they were trying to be funny or not. Normally, if it says "Dear Sir" I put it in the bin. If it says "Dear Gerry" I do not usually read it. This I actually read and it says, "News Release: Warm Front Grant. City of Durham's best kept secret." They are asking me to put this press release out. "'Warm Front grants are one of the nation's best kept secrets' says Gerry Steinberg, MP for the City of Durham. 'I often meet constituents who have no idea that they can qualify for up to £2,500 of government money. It is such a shame that so many people are missing out.'" They want me to put that out and tell them I am a plonker. I am not putting this out. Why do not people know that this money is available? Nobody knows it is there.

Sir Brian Bender: As the NAO report identifies, a lot of people do not know. Therefore, one of the things we have done over the summer is introduce benefit health checks so that those who are eligible for assistance can find out who they are so that they get the benefits. Since September, with Eaga's clients, that has resulted in 80 more customers now being eligible.

Q42 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is not answering the question, is it? According to Eaga, nobody knows about it. Mr Leek, come on. Let us have a better one than that. That was just pure flannel. That was Civil Service speak. Now just tell us the truth.

Mr Leek: This is part of something that we do on a regular, continual basis, to encourage MPs to raise awareness of energy efficiency in their constituencies. When you are looking at the vulnerable households and the client group that we deal with, it is very difficult to reach them through a lot of traditional marketing methods such as direct mailing. By getting somebody that they trust and have confidence in to subscribe to the scheme, we find this is a great way of raising awareness of the scheme throughout the areas.

Q43 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Instead of me putting a press release out which makes me look like a plonker, you could have taken a front page advert out in The Northern Echo, which 95% I suspect of people in my constituency read, to say, "Do you qualify for help for your fuel?" They would see that and they could make an application. You are not prepared to do that. You want me to make a fool of myself.

Mr Leek: We do put adverts into papers but the people we are trying to reach, who are the most difficult to reach, the oldest and the coldest in society, are the ones who do not respond to that type of marketing. They respond far better to people on a personal basis that they feel are respected in society and that they can trust.

Q44 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): MPs are very much respected in society.

Sir Brian Bender: The Chairman earlier referred to Warm Zones. One of the findings from Warm Zones estimates that around 20% of households refuse assistance, even when they are given offers of help. This is the sort of issue we are trying to tackle.

Q45 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How are you going to solve this? Very seriously, people come to me about this very same thing and they just miss out. When you check their income and their assets, there is very little difference between those who qualify and those who do not. There is very much a grey area of people who clearly need help but do not qualify for that help. If you look at page 14, that picks up the thread of that, paragraphs 2.7 and 2.8. How are you going to find the genuine people who actually need it, who are fuel poor but just miss out?

Sir Brian Bender: There are two things we should be doing. First of all, carrying forward the benefit health checks we have begun. That is, helping to target people who do not know they are eligible. Secondly, looking at the eligibility criteria and trying to find some combination of benefits passporting and the SAP rating of property, and getting some proper mix of those to help target that right. The risk of making it too complicated is scaring people off.

Q46 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Can we move to page 32, appendix 2, the previous PAC recommendations and the responses that we got? When you read this, the reason I opened by saying it is not a very good report is because if you look at the very first recommendation that was made by this Committee, I think about five years ago, it was: "The Department should consider whether more could be done to reach those in greatest need, particularly in the private rented sector and in the poorest households." The NAO findings have been: "Generally the Scheme still operates on a first come first served basis and does not prioritise those most in need." Five years on from when we made this recommendation, we are still in virtually the same position we were in five years ago. That is just not acceptable. Why has something not been done to put that right?

Sir Brian Bender: First of all, we have focused Warm Front solely on the private rented and owner occupier sectors, responding to one of the recommendations of the Committee. Secondly, we have NEA, the charity, to do some work for us on how to fast track applicants who are in particular need, how to get away from first come, first served into some sort of queuing and prioritisation. The scheme managers have achieved 50% targeting to those over 60, so we are making progress on this, but these are difficult issues.

Q47 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): We are talking about five years. We can only go by what the NAO tells us. The NAO tells us that generally the scheme still operates as it was operating five years ago. That does not give us a lot of confidence. Look at recommendation two: "The Committee found it surprising that more has not been done to promote those measures which are the most energy efficient." We see the response of the NAO: "A wider range of measures is available under Warm Front compared to the previous Scheme. However, less efficient options are still available. The Scheme rules do not always mean that the most efficient solution is possible. This point is addressed in detail in the main body of the report (Part 3)." You do not seem to have achieved that aim. Here, to me, are the two most important things in the scheme. One, that it should go to those with the greatest need and two, it should be the most efficiently done. Neither of those aims have been achieved. What is the point of the scheme if you cannot in five years achieve those aims?

Sir Brian Bender: I read the first sentence of this right hand column as crediting us for having made progress: "A wider range of measures is available ...", but we have not gone far enough yet.


Q122 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Just a final point following on from what Mr Davidson was saying. It does say in the report that the success of the scheme is based on the number of homes you have actually visited. That does not really tell you very much about the scheme, does it, that just tells you that you have gone to a lot of houses. Surely the success should be based on whether you have reached the right people, whether you have achieved efficiency, etc., etc? It seems to me from the line of questioning that Mr Davidson went down, he was right that all you need to do is give a light bulb out and you can count that as a success. How can you actually measure real success, real success being what I have just said, efficiency, etc?

Sir Brian Bender: In my personal view, I agree that the target is an inappropriate one. We will be discussing with the Treasury through the winter into the next Spending Review what the department's relevant target should be in the next Public Service Agreement. It does need to be one that addresses fuel poverty more directly through some mixture and not simply the numbers of households assisted. I accept your point.

Q123 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): There appears to be no incentive at all to accommodate that, does there? You must come up with a system where there is an incentive for Eaga and Powergen to actually achieve real success and show that they are achieving success, some sort of measure of success.

Sir Brian Bender: Yes. One of the ways we can do that is actually by incorporating the improvement to the house, the PSA measure as part of the target. That may be one of the ways.

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