As capitalist Britain spirals deeper into crisis, the curse of poverty spreads ever wider and deeper, taking ever nastier forms. One kind of poverty has in recent years been sanitised with a fancy new name in social work circles: “fuel poverty”. If a family has to spend more than 10% of its income on heating, it is said to be “fuel poor”; if the slice is more than 20%, then the family then officially enters “extreme fuel poverty”. How much more adept is capitalism at cataloguing problems than at solving them!
For the 5 million plus families in Britain finding it impossible to heat their homes, the matter is more succinctly expressed: “Heat or Eat”. Across the UK one in six families is fuel-poor. The figure in Scotland is yet worse, one in three, with 770,000 households affected in 2009, up from 618,000 in 2008 and 293,000 in 2002. The number of households in “extreme” fuel poverty rose from 3% in 2002 to 10% last year. In Glasgow alone some 105,000 families are trapped in fuel poverty. For more and more families, the ‘lifestyle choice’ faced daily is whether to keep warm or keep fed.
Fuel poverty is a killer
Every winter the death rate in Britain surges by around 18%, even worse than Germany (11%) and Finland (10%), countries with comparable climates. Whilst relatively few die directly from exposure to cold, prolonged exposure lowers the body temperature, aggravating respiratory and circulatory diseases. Often the resultant heart attacks and strokes follow several days after exposure to cold. Many of these deaths are perfectly avoidable, but capitalism is worried about expanding its profits, not prolonging working class lives. Whilst a very severe winter (the worst in 17 years) is right now turning distress into desperation for so many, it is not the weather that is to blame for the combination of unemployment, low income, substandard housing and sky-high energy bills which keeps so many families shivering. It is not the weather but capitalism that plants poverty in the midst of plenty, making the working class pay to go on bailing out the handful of parasites for whose benefit the failing capitalist system is run.
The authorities make a great show of concern about fuel poverty, setting up public-private partnerships to examine the problem and prescribe remedies. But these supposed solutions do nothing either to raise the income of fuel-poor households or to challenge the extortion practiced by the Big Six energy suppliers. Even though the Scottish government accepts that rising fuel costs are to blame, with prices having already rocketed by 19.5% between July 2008 and July 2009, the privatised energy companies suffer no more than the occasional token slap on the wrist from the regulators.
Glasgow: help is at hand?
Meanwhile shivering Glaswegians are being told to contact something called the Home Energy Advice Team (G.HEAT), which hands out advice on the “most cost-effective use of heating”, “energy saving measures for the home”, and “understanding fuel bills”. Whilst schemes to squirt some insulating foam into cavity walls and bung a few rolls of fibreglass under the roof space may appeal to councils that want to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about the scandal of fuel poverty, any economic benefit to household budgets is rapidly set to nought by the relentless rise of fuel bills. And most families have little difficulty in ‘understanding’ the bills piling up on the doormat, even without the assistance of G.HEAT: Pay up or freeze. By ‘offering’ coin-operated meters to those unable to cope with bills, matters are so arranged that the poor cut themselves off, allowing the energy companies to preserve both their ‘social conscience’ and their fat profits.
All G.HEAT’s advice puts the onus on families to somehow manage their poverty better, leaving the energy companies free to prosper on the back of other folk’s misery. This is less surprising when we note that this body, initiated by Glasgow City Council and partnered with various social enterprises, also includes amongst its bedfellows no less than the Scottish Power Energy People Trust. What a boon it must be when G.HEAT offers “an advocacy service for householders dealing with utility companies” for it to be able to draw on the experience of Scottish Power!
Scottish Power: Parasites and Crooks
This company, one of the Big Six that monopolise energy supply in Britain, certainly has plenty of experience – of fleecing the public. It had the highest proportion of complaints per 100,000 customers made to advice line Consumer Direct this year. Back in 2007 it refused to cut prices in line with the rest of the industry. In 2008 it was accused of rigging the power market, manipulating its supply to the National Grid in such a way as to draw deeper from the public fund designed to balance overall supply and demand. In 2007/08 these balancing payments came to £70 million. A year later they hit the £238 million mark, and for 2009/10 they are expected to reach £258 million, with the bulk incurred in Scotland. Energy regulator Ofgem’s rubber teeth were bared in January 2009 when they suspended the investigation on the plea that it would be more effective to deal with the wider problem than pursuing the specific case further. Which is to say, all the Big Six are at it, fully intend to continue and have nothing to fear from Ofgem. Meanwhile the latest report reveals that net profit across the industry has increased from an average of £65 per retail customer to a new high of £90.
Given the billions that Scottish Power is extorting from its customers and draining unimpeded from the public purse, it is understandable that the Scottish Power Energy People Trust should declare it is “delighted to support this unique project and has awarded £100,000 to provide much needed assistance to fuel poor households across Glasgow.” Good public relations flannel has never come so cheap.
Britain’s energy resources are enormous and capable of further great expansion. What brings the curse of fuel-poverty is not the scarcity of resources or commodities. Rather, it is the overproduction of commodities that triggers capitalist crisis, the manufacture of more commodities than can all be sold at a profit on the market. This does not mean that the supply of commodities outgrows social need. On the contrary, children go to bed hungry whilst unsold food rots in warehouses and food crops are used for bio-fuels. The problem is that, in his efforts to out-compete his rivals in a glutted marketplace, each capitalist further impoverishes the workers whose labour he exploits, thereby further reducing effective demand and increasing market glut in a vicious downward spiral.
Monopoly capitalists like the owners of Scottish Power cannot be “regulated” or tamed by a state which exists to defend the rights of private property in the means of production. If the capitalists of a wealthy country like Britain declare themselves unwilling or unable to end the scourge of poverty, then they need to be overthrown by the working class. Scottish Power and the rest of the Big Six need to be taken out of private hands, along with the rest of industry and the banks, so that a planned economy can be run on the basis of social need, not private profit.
End fuel poverty – nationalise the energy companies!
End capitalism – forward to socialism!