'Warm words' won't help Highlanders heat homes – Labour MSP Rhoda Grant calls on Scottish Government to help pensioners and families through the winter
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Tens of thousands of people in the Highlands could be left in the cold unless the Scottish Government acts now, according to a north Labour MSP who warns that “warm words” will not heat homes this winter.
Rhoda Grant has called on the SNP to take up Scottish Labour's plans to expand the winter fuel payment as new figures revealed the move could help up to 24,791 people in the Highlands.
Last week, party leader Anas Sarwar called on the government to introduce a £70 winter fuel supplement for low-income pensioners and struggling families, as the cost of living crisis looms.
At the start of this month the energy price cap rose by £139 – the largest increase in history – but in contrast the rate of winter fuel payment has been frozen for a decade.
The hike in gas prices will also hit electricity – some of which is generated by burning gas – and campaign groups have warned that the rise and the already sky-high energy prices will lead to preventable deaths.
This comes as the furlough scheme came to an end at the end of last month and the universal credit uplift was scrapped on Wednesday, prompting fears of a cost of living crisis stretching household budgets past breaking point.
The Scottish parliament has the power to take action to expand winter fuel payments to help alleviate fuel poverty, which disproportionately affects people in the Highlands, but the SNP delayed devolving the benefit from the Department of Work and Pensions for up to four years.
But Mrs Grant is urging the government to use the powers it does have to try and ensure no-one faces a choice between heating and eating this winter, saying there is "no time to waste".
“This winter too many Scots are facing fuel poverty as energy prices spiral out of control,” she said.
“The Scottish parliament can make a difference here. We have the powers to ensure payments reflect the pressures on fuel poor households but the SNP have delayed taking responsibility.
“No-one should have to face a choice between heating and eating this winter. That's why Labour would give people struggling with fuel poverty £70 now to help them through the winter months.
"In the Highlands this would help up to 24,791 people. The Scottish Government's warm words are cold comfort if they fail to act. The winter months are fast approaching and we have a cost of living crisis escalating by the day – there is no time to waste.
"The SNP must back this policy now and start moving to get this money in people's pockets."
But the SNP's Caithness, Sutherland and Ross MSP Maree Todd lashed out at what she sees as a “catalogue of catastrophic decisions” from Westminster that ultimately leaves people facing “an unjust charging regime”.
“A catalogue of catastrophic decisions made in Westminster have led to the current crisis,” she said.
“It is entirely unjust that across the Highlands, rural communities who are net exporters of green electricity and should be seeing the benefit of the energy they produce, are instead penalised by an unjust charging regime which leaves many households in my constituency fuel poor.
“The current economic climate will further exacerbate fuel poverty figures in the Highlands and rather than supporting low income families in the tough winter months ahead, the UK government is choosing to slash welfare payments.
“The removal of the universal credit uplift further weakens a social security system which has been systematically and deliberately undermined over the past decade by the UK government. Combined with the premature end to the furlough scheme, we know that the impact on fuel poverty rates in the Highlands will be significant.
“The SNP government has a strong track record of supporting low-income families and reducing fuel poverty rates. We can see this well reflected in the winter support fund, our energy efficient scotland programme, and the scottish child payment, to name a few.
“Ultimately though, it is not the responsibility of a devolved parliament to endlessly mitigate reserved policies, nor is it financially feasible. The cost of living crisis falls with the UK government.”
Fellow SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands Emma Roddick said she was “extremely concerned” about the level of fuel poverty in the north but fears that Westminster was pulling the rug out by undermining efforts to tackle the issue north of the border.
She said: “Rather than attacking the Scottish Government for not implementing something outwith their control, Labour should be focusing their efforts on the UK government’s disastrous plan to cut the uplift to universal credit.”