Cost of living: Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson don't seem to realise just how bad this crisis is going to get – Brian Wilson

For a crisis to be responded to, it first has to be recognised that one exists. I have little sense this threshold has been crossed in relation to the explosion in energy bills that is now underway.

The four million people in the UK who use a pre-payment meter may suffer in silence as they are unable to afford to feed it (Picture: Peter Byrne/PA)
The four million people in the UK who use a pre-payment meter may suffer in silence as they are unable to afford to feed it (Picture: Peter Byrne/PA)

Very large numbers will simply be unable to pay; not through wilful evasion or personal incompetence but because they simply do not have enough money to meet bills which will increase by hundreds of pounds. It is a crisis not of their making and the support offered in an hour of need is woefully inadequate.

Take a very simple test. How can it be morally, socially or even economically justifiable to glibly rule out a windfall tax on energy producers when they are benefiting hugely through profits from exactly the circumstances that are driving up bills for those who cannot afford them?

Arguments about why we are particularly exposed need only brief rehearsal. We got here by becoming stupidly dependent on gas, most of it imported, while running down baseload. We pretended that renewables would fill the gap while knowing it was actually imported gas which would be relied upon.

No party or government, in Whitehall or Edinburgh, was exempt from these follies. One question now is whether enough lessons have been learned to make a difference in the future but energy policy does not get turned around in short order and will do nothing for people now living in fear of their next energy bill.

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Spare a thought for one category of consumers rarely heard of – the four million, proportionately a little higher in Scotland, who use pre-payment meters. If they cannot feed the meter, there is no need for the unpleasantness of disconnection. Self-disconnection happens privately, the consequences hidden from view, the vast majority on pre-payment meters are in low-income households.

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Set alongside that prospect, does a windfall tax on Big Oil and the utility monopolies really sound like an option to be waved away?

According to Citizens Advice Scotland, 360,000 Scots had debt problems before the pandemic and that has now soared to 600,000 with another quarter of a million fearful that they are about to be tipped into debt. If other demands come first, gas and electricity may go to the bottom of the pile but consequences can be the most severe.

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The big fiscal levers are UK-wide and the response there has been feeble. Some suspect other measures are being held back for October when another rise in the Ofgem price cap is already written into the script. That scarcely seems like a good enough reason for doing so little now, in face of the immediate threat.

The Scottish response in the use of devolved powers isn’t much better or more urgent. Why on earth is the £150 rebate in council tax, which flows from Barnett consequentials, going to 73 per cent of households rather than the quartile that needs it most where three times that sum would make a real difference? There are times when there are more important priorities than protecting the middle-class vote and this is one of them.

It is also a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other. The SNP’s continuing onslaught on council funding while handing local authorities the power to increase council tax means the £150 will merely offset the increase from that source. There are times when lip-service to redistributionism is put to the test and this is one of them.

The Western Isles where I live has the highest level of fuel poverty in the country. Yet the organisation responsible for energy efficiency measures has just had to close down its insulation department because months of negotiation with Scottish Government officials failed to secure flexibility for rural areas on new regulations. Not much sign of crisis recognition there!

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Both governments need to understand the scale of what is about to hit vast numbers over the coming months and get into crisis mode without political game-playing. Unless there is a far greater sense of urgency and empathy, the most effective message will be through the ballot box.

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