We must all work together to avoid winter deaths

Today I gave the following speech to a conference organised by Barnsley Council, 'A Call to Action: Eliminating Excess Winter Deaths in Barnsley'.

We all know that every winter, thousands of people, particularly the elderly, die as a result of plummeting temperatures and soaring heating bills.
And we know that the vast majority of the households in fuel poverty in the UK are home to an elderly or vulnerable person.

In the winter of 2011-12 alone, 24,000 people lost their lives because of fuel poverty, with 19,500 of those being people aged over 75.

So shocking are these figures that I raised this personally with the Prime minister in Parliament.

These deaths did not come without warning; similar numbers have died every winter for years. In a country that, despite all our economic difficulties, is still the seventh richest in the world, this is a moral tragedy.

The elderly men and women that die worked hard contributing to our society on the understanding that they would be cared for if the need arose, and they deserve far better treatment than this. It is unacceptable that so many people die in our country in this way.

How a society cares for the elderly and most vulnerable is an important yardstick by which we should be judges. It is unacceptable that in modern Britain some of the most vulnerable people in our society are at risk because they can’t afford to heat their homes properly.

With the government admitting that the number of people in fuel poverty will increase in the next two years, this is a problem that is set to get worse, not better.

This is not just morally wrong. It’s also bad for our economy. The former Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, estimated that cold homes cost the NHS £850 million every year. This is money that could be used for life-saving surgery, cancer research, emergency centres and other essential services.

Britain does not compare favourably when looking internationally: countries that suffer more severe winters than us often have fewer excess winter deaths. Finland, for example, experiences Arctic winters but has the lowest rate of excess winter death in Europe.

It is imperative that we learn from the example of those who are used to bearing far harsher winters than we are. From countries like Finland, we know that our situation is not inevitable, and there are steps that can be taken to combat it.

Although there was still more to do, I’m proud of what the last Labour government achieved on this issue – from the winter fuel payments that took thousands of pensioners out of fuel poverty, to insulating 2 million more family homes, and the introduction of the Warm Front Scheme.

But progress has stalled under the coalition government. In the last three years, the average fuel bill has increased by over £300. At the same time, energy companies have had a £3.3 billion uplift in profits. The increase in prices is a big contributor to the falling living standards that we have seen in recent years.

Unfortunately, it seems that, with this government, the energy companies are just another vested interest that they’re not willing to stand up to. So far, tough talk from the Energy Secretary has not been matched with action, except to make the situation worse.

The same Warm Front Scheme that tackled fuel poverty under the last government is now underfunded. This government will be the first since the 1970s not to have a properly funded energy efficiency scheme.

So, what can we do about it?

Well, no one can have missed Ed Miliband’s recent announcement that the next Labour government would freeze energy prices until the start of 2017. Despite the hysterical wails of protest from the energy companies and threats of power black-outs, this proposal will save a typical household £120 a year and an average business £1,800.

Some of the big energy companies are already offering frozen deals until 2017 to some of their customers, which just goes to show that it should be possible to do this for all consumers.

Let’s look at energy efficiency. The average cost of making a home energy efficient is £7,500. But we should remember that the cost of keeping an elderly person in hospital for a week is £2,100. I believe the prevention of fuel poverty is clearly more cost-effective than treating the symptoms.

The government’s flagship programme is the Green Deal. They claimed that it would help insulate 3.5 million homes. They said they would be disappointed if fewer than 10,000 people had signed up before the end of this year.

But eight months into this programme, they are nowhere near their target. In fact, less than 150 people have signed up to the Green Deal. But 58,000 people have had assessments. So, 99% of those who are interested in signing up are deciding it’s not a good deal. This tells us that people are interested in making their homes more energy efficient, but the Green Deal is simply not convincing most of those people that it will make them better off.

We badly need to return to a scheme like the Warm Front and ensure that such schemes are offered on fair terms to consumers that improve energy efficiency in ways that are also value for money. Alongside the Green Deal, the government has created the Energy Company Obligation, a successor scheme to the obligations we put in place for energy companies.

It’s vital that at a time when support for those in fuel poverty has been cut in half, the help that is available is targeted to where it’s most needed. But under the Energy Company Obligation, 60% of the funding is going to those who can afford to pay, and not to those in fuel poverty.

If we are to truly deal with the issue of excess winter deaths, then resources need to be targeted much more effectively. The current situation is simply indefensible.

More effective targeting of help is not enough, however. A sustainable solution to fuel poverty will require innovative reforms of the energy market. We need to break the stranglehold that the ‘big 6’ companies have on the energy market. The six largest firms control 98% of that market. Therefore, there is little incentive to keep wholesale prices efficient, due to lack of competition.

The second problem is that these same big companies own most of the power stations themselves. When they can source most of the power that consumers use from their own power stations, open market trade is reduced. There is no way of telling whether market prices are being reflected in consumer prices.

To combat this, Labour has proposed creating a pool, a single mechanism that would bring all generators and suppliers together to buy and sell their power. This is a simple idea. All generators would be required to sell their energy into the pool, and then all suppliers would be required to purchase it from there.

This would put a break between generation and supply, and result in far greater volumes being traded openly, allowing customers to easily see the market price, and whether it was being accurately reflected in their energy bills.

We can see from other energy markets like the Nord Pool, the largest market for electricity in the world, which serves six countries including Norway and Finland, that a pool of energy creates a more transparent market with a greater number of companies competing.

We all know that when energy prices go up, it’s quickly passed on to the consumer, but when prices go down, prices fall slowly or not at all. We need to combat this to prevent ever increasing energy bills. Breaking the monopoly that these energy companies have on the market would be a positive step forward. A reformed market like this would also be more attractive for investment, particularly from independent generators or companies that want to enter the supply market.

We also need to create a new and more powerful energy regulator, which can uncover fraud itself rather than wait for whistleblowers. Most importantly, it would also be able to compel energy companies to pass on price cuts to their customers. It’s clear that Ofgem is not working effectively as a regulator, and needs to be replaced.

The government must also ensure that the oldest in our society are given the best energy deals. The Labour Party has proposed that anyone over the age of 75 should automatically be put on the lowest tariff, and if the energy companies don’t do this voluntarily, we will make them do it using legislation. Competing tariffs can be good for some consumers, but it’s not working as intended for most. It has recently been estimated that as many as 4 out of every 5 households is overpaying on their energy bills. The increasing complexity of choosing a suitable tariff has hindered, not helped, consumer choice.

The truth is that there are so many different tariffs that many elderly people find it confusing, or lack the confidence to access the internet where the best deals can be found.

Just this week, EON announced that its Stay Warm deal – which was specifically targeted at elderly people to help them plan their energy consumption across the year – has been withdrawn. They claim it is because of new rules from the government which limit the number of tariffs an energy company can have.

Whatever the reasons, it’s obvious that the government’s changes aren’t helping elderly people in the slightest.

So our proposal that elderly people get automatically put on the lowest tariff is a fair and reasonable demand. It could save up to four million pensioners as much as £200 a year and push more individuals and families out of fuel poverty. A simple change like that could mean a great deal for hard pressed pensioners during the winter months.

Improving the energy efficiency standards of today’s homes, and making the energy sector fairer to consumers, are long-term solutions that will make for better public health, an enhanced economy, and a sustainable environment.

But there are steps we can take locally as well as nationally. In Barnsley, we have one of the highest rates of fuel poverty in the region, and on average 116 excess winter deaths every year. That’s 116 too many.

Such shocking statistics have already prompted action. For the past two winters, Barnsley has been able to take advantage of the Department of Health’s ‘Warm Homes, Healthier People’ funding. With this money, 4,000 Winter Survival Kits, half of which went to elderly people and over 1,000 of which were baby packs were delivered.

It also funded training for frontline professionals – such as community nurses and fire officers – on the South Yorkshire HotSpots programme, to help them quickly identify cold homes when working out in the community. In addition, a local company, Switch Training, was used to deliver some financial inclusion sessions – many of which took place in people’s homes. This aimed to improve people’s money management skills, to help them improve their everyday finances.

And finally, the council negotiated with the Clinical Commissioning Group to get over £9,000 which was then passed on to the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau. They used this to help people with fuel debt – a growing area of work for the CAB. However, we here in Barnsley need to learn more to tackle this huge problem.

We are learning. Already we know that we need to better target the Winter Survival Kits, to ensure they get to people who truly need them.

But we need to go further. We need a sustainable strategy that is not dependent on government grants. Budgets are being squeezed and we don’t know whether central government funding will be there from one year to the next.

I believe that the new Director of Public Health is best placed to provide co-ordination in Barnsley between the local authority, the clinical commissioning group and the hospital – as well as drawing in the local charities and their vital knowledge of the communities affected.

So I am pleased that today we have brought together so many of these key groups, to put our heads together to help find a joint solution to this problem.

We will be looking at the issue from all angles – from the wider environmental issues down to individual responsibilities; from the different challenges posed by local housing stock versus the private rented sector, to how fuel poverty is inextricably linked to wider issues of social isolation.

The speakers and workshops today should help us focus, so we can create a strategy for the next five years, rather than just reacting to this repeated problem on an ad-hoc basis every year.

Co-ordination is key. And this event is the first step on the path to successfully achieving that. We are also, by holding this event, finally recognising the scale of the challenge we face here in Barnsley. And there is no shame in saying that the scale is so immense that no one organisation or agency can tackle it alone. But let’s be honest – 116 deaths is totally unacceptable!

So, today I issue a direct challenge to every one of us here today – and to those who are not – indeed, to the whole of the town:

Let’s do what Barnsley does best – let’s pull together and work as a town to look after our own – and try to ensure that no one dies because of the cold this coming winter.

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