Heating oil

Many of my constituents who live in rural areas outside towns or larger villages rely on oil to heat their homes.  And they've been up in arms about price rises.  A Cowfold resident told me that he had gone "from stunned to angry" that the cost has almost doubled in three months.

500 litres of oil now costs well over £300 and prices are still rising.  And as another constituent pointed out, this is for delivery in three weeks' time.  An immediate delivery will cost you £1 a litre - if you can get it.  And these prices appear to be far higher in West Sussex than in Scotland.

All of the local people who have contacted me point out that there's no apparent relationship between the price of crude oil, which although rising is way off its peak, and these charges.  Consumers of mains gas have the protection of a regulator.  But the 1.5 million who rely on oil are at the mercy of the suppliers.

A West Chiltington resident demanded an explanation from her supplier who said that it was "simply a matter of supply and demand" and that, like flights during school holidays, demand was higher in the cold weather.

So are the oil companies charging more simply because they can, or because the prices they are paying are rising?  I have raised this issue with the Energy Secretary.

My constituent believes this behaviour is "unethical profit making."  Another called it "profiteering".  A Hurstpierpoint resident was even more trenchant, describing it as "nothing but greed worthy of the lowest gangsters and loan sharks."

Everyone who has written to me has expressed particular concern about the impact on poor and elderly people in rural areas, especially when the weather is so cold.  And many have speculated that if the majority of the population faced price increases on this scale there would be uproar. 

A new official report has found that because of expenses like travel and heating the cost of living in rural areas is a fifth higher, or £2,600 a year more, than in urban areas.  Some can afford this premium, but lower-paid rural people struggle.

As one constituent told me in an e-mail today, "in our household there are one and a half wages coming in and even though we are not 'poor' [the oil price increase] has been a great worry."

Christopher N Howarth