The Office of National Statistics recently published its annual report that revealed how many individuals have paid the highest price for fuel-poor homes. During the winter of 2011/12, 24,000 people died as a result of plummeting temperatures and soaring heating bills.
These deaths did not come without warning. Similar numbers have died every winter for decades. As winter draws upon us again, it is unacceptable that many people face an uncertain and dangerous future, simply because they cannot afford to keep themselves warm. The initiatives recently announced by Ed Miliband and Caroline Flint would go a long way in tackling the public health crisis that every winter represents.
The moral tragedy of cold winter deaths is made worse by the percentage of vulnerable people who live in fuel poverty. 4 million of the 4.75 million fuel-poor households are home to a vulnerable person, and 50% have a resident over the age of 60. 19,500 winter deaths, of the total of 24,000, happened amongst those aged over 75. These men and women worked hard contributing to our society on the understanding that they will be cared for if the need arises, and they deserve far better treatment in these cold months.
Care for the elderly is an important yardstick by which societies should be measured. It is unacceptable that in modern Britain, which despite economic recession is still a relatively prosperous nation, vulnerable people are at risk simply because they cannot afford to heat their homes properly.
As well as a moral tragedy, fuel poverty is an economic scandal. Sir Liam Donaldson, the former Chief Medical Officer, estimated that cold homes cost the NHS £850 million every year. Preventable fuel poverty diverts the money which could be better used for cancer research, life-saving surgery, and accident and emergency centres. An end to the unacceptable levels of cold winter deaths would not only save lives during the winter months, but the savings made would help to save countless more lives.
Britain is of course not alone in suffering from the ravages of winter, but we do not compare favourably on an international level. Many communities across the world have a better record than the UK for keeping their homes warm and reducing excess winter mortality. It is imperative that we learn from the example of those who are used to bearing far harsher winters than ours. Finland experiences Arctic winters but has greater energy efficiency and the lowest rate of excess winter death in Europe.
Countries like Finland show us how we might end fuel poverty. It is not a complex social problem. There are clear steps that can be taken to end the national scandal of cold homes. Keeping heat in our homes is a cost-effective solution which has been proved to save lives. The average cost of making a home energy-efficient is £7,500, but keeping an older person in hospital can cost up to £2,100 per week. The prevention of fuel poverty is clearly a more cost-effective solution than its treatment.
But the Tory-led government has scaled down the only publicly funded scheme to improve home insulation. The Warm Front Scheme, introduced by the last Labour government to tackle fuel poverty, is now underfunded, and its closure next year means that this will be the first administration since the 1970s not to have a Government funded energy efficiency scheme. Insulating homes is an important task facing our society, and we will not fulfil it by making it more difficult for the poorest in society to receive public funding for thermal-efficiency improvements.
But a sustainable solution to fuel poverty will not be achieved without reforming the energy market. The Labour Party has proposed innovative ways for the energy market to be made fairer for the average family. Requiring energy companies to sell their energy into a pool will improve competition and make energy bills fairer for the consumer. We should also create a new and more powerful energy regulator, which can uncover fraud itself rather than wait for whistleblowers, and, most importantly, can compel energy companies to pass on price cuts to their customers.
To provide targeted help to our elderly, the government must ensure that the oldest in our society are given the best energy deals. Energy companies should be required to put all of their customers over the age of 75 are on the cheapest tariff available. This fair and reasonable demand could save up to four million pensioners as much as £200 a year, and push more individuals and families out of fuel poverty.
Improving the energy efficiency standards of today’s homes, and making the energy sector fair for consumers, are long-term solutions that will make for better public health, an enhanced economy, and a sustainable environment. But above all, it is a crucial step in ending the national scandal of excess winter deaths amongst our most vulnerable. With winter now upon us it remains to be seen how seriously the government is going to take this vital issue.