PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on pensioner fuel poverty

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2008

No surprises that the financial crisis again dominated the slanging-match exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions this week.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg stuck to his week-in-week-out brief – asking punchy questions about the ‘bread and butter’ issues affecting the lives of everyday folk – this time focusing on fuel poverty, and the estimates that up to 80% of single pensioners will struggle to heat their homes this winter. Nick even managed to get in a sly dig at both Labour and the Tories over the Mandelson-Osborne Russian donor imbroglio, noting that Gordon Brown “is all at sea, if not in a luxury yacht, like some prominent members of the Opposition.”

David Cameron once again found himself on the defensive when challenging the Prime Minister, with his frustration levels visibly rising as he sees the Prime Minister growing in confidence in inverse proportion to the growth of the British economy.

The Tory leader has a problem at the moment: in times of crisis, you have to sound like you have a firm grip on policy, that you can offer solutions not just identify problems. Everyone knows the economy’s gone tits-up on Labour’s watch. But most of the public recognises that this is a global financial crisis, and that the Tories, just like Labour, failed to see it coming, and when it did happen stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Labour. So politicians are currently being judged on the proposals they put forward now, not the degree of foresight they showed previously (sadly for the Lib Dems and Vince).

Anyway judge for yourselves how Vince did, via the magic of YouTube and Hansard:


Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Let me add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Trooper James Munday and aid worker Gayle Williams, who in their very different ways were serving this country and serving the people of Afghanistan.
The public have seen that the Prime Minister delivered his multi-billion pound bail-out package for the bankers only once the banks were on the edge of collapse, so they are now asking themselves how bad it needs to get before he delivers a bail-out package for them. Yesterday we heard the energy companies saying that they will be handing down price cuts next year at the earliest, yet this winter four out of five single pensioners will be living in pensioner poverty, and the measures that he outlined in answer to the earlier question will be too late for them. What will he do now for them, this winter?

The Prime Minister: First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman. We have been putting liquidity into the banking system for months. We have put £100 billion and more into the banking system to ensure that our banks can continue to be in existence. The recapitalisation of the banks was to strengthen them, so that they could face all sorts of difficulties ahead, and at the same time restart lending. So I have to correct him on that; he is wrong on that issue.
On helping pensioners this winter, the right hon. Gentleman knows, of course, that the pension is more than £30 a week, but let me point out to him that we are helping pensioners this winter by the rise in the winter allowance that will come to people very soon, by the help that we are giving with the social tariff, which also helps many pensioners, by encouraging pensioners to use the direct debit system to keep their bills low, and by all the measures that we are taking on insulation and central heating to give pensioners the best chance of saving energy or saving costs from the use of energy. We are trying to do all these things; I hope that we will have all-party support for them.

Mr. Clegg: I asked the Prime Minister about fuel poverty and he gave me a wholly different answer. The answer shows that this Prime Minister—[Interruption.] He is all at sea—[Interruption.]—if not in a luxury yacht, like some prominent members of the Opposition. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Please allow the right hon. Gentleman to be heard. [Interruption.] Order.

Mr. Clegg: Let me make a specific suggestion about something that the Prime Minister could do now. At the moment, we all pay more for the energy that we use first—our early energy units—and less for the rest. That hits families on low and middle incomes, who use less energy, very hard indeed. Will he commit today to reversing that unfair system—turning it on its head so that those who use less energy pay lower prices? It makes environmental sense, it makes common sense and it is something that he could do now, to help people this winter. Will he do that—yes or no?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to look at any constructive suggestion that has been put about how we can help people through these difficult winter months. We have also raised the payment that would be paid to people if there should be severe weather during these months. But I think the right hon. Gentleman’s protestations about what ought to be done would be better heard if he had not committed his party at his conference to £20 billion-worth of cuts in public expenditure.