Poorer people more vulnerable to winter deaths as fuel costs rise


LONDON LETTER:Statistics such as those from the Office for National Statistics – Excess Winter Mortality in England and Wales, 2011-12 – often reveal tales of misery in dry, unemotional numbers.

Having looked at mortality figures from August 2011 to July last year, the statisticians found there were 24,000 extra winter deaths in England and Wales during the period.

“Unusually, mortality peaked in February, which is likely to be related to increased influenza, as the rise in deaths coincided with the peak in the influenza-like illness rate. In addition, February was the coldest winter month,” the report states.

“The increased deaths closely followed a period of colder-than-average temperatures,” it goes on, before carefully noting that average daily temperatures for the month never got above 3.9 degrees, significantly below the five-year average of 4.7 degrees.

In all, an average of 1,544 people died each day, compared with a five-year average for February of 1,472 – a toll that charities and social workers say can be partly blamed on rising energy bills, which have again risen this week given the cold spell.

“The average domestic dual fuel bill is now at a record high of £1,365 per annum, creating severe additional hardship for some six million UK fuel-poor households,” says the British government’s Fuel Poverty Advisory Group.

Under the British definition, people are regarded as being “fuel-poor” if they need to spend more than 10 per cent of their income to keep temperatures in the main living rooms at 21 degrees and 18 degrees elsewhere, along with paying for water heating, electricity and cooking.

Recently, energy secretary Ed Davey ruled that energy firms would be able to charge homes and small businesses an extra £7.6 billion over the next eight years to fund renewable energy.

Combined with the “inexorable rise” in world energy costs, the advisory group warns that “time is rapidly running out to make the homes of the fuel-poor fuel poverty-proof.

“Those on the lowest incomes typically pay more for their energy with households with an average income of £6,500 paying £1,954 for their energy, compared to those earning around £42,000 paying £1,244 per annum.”

In South Lanarkshire in Scotland, for example, a quarter of council home tenants are unable to heat their homes properly, while the figures in the neighbouring council are even worse, with nearly a third affected.

Fuel poverty fell sharply to its lowest recorded levels in 2003 and 2004, on the back of low world energy prices, before nearly trebling between 2004 and 2009. It retreated a little in 2010, before resuming its rise

“Energy prices are currently the main driver. Domestic prices of fuel fell by 17 per cent in real terms between 1996 and 2003, but increased by 42 per cent between 2003 and 2007 and in total by 74 per cent between 2003 and 2009,” according to House of Commons researchers.

“Prices fell in 2010 in real terms, but increases in prices in autumn 2011 have taken real prices back to almost their 2009 level.

“Such large price increases can only be partly offset by increases in income and energy efficiency improvements.”

During the Labour years, ministers vowed to end fuel poverty by 2010, the year it left power – a missed target. Today, the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group warns that seven million households might not be heated properly in three years, if trends continue.

The difficulties are particularly acute in large parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which are not linked to the national gas grid, forcing homes to use more expensive alternatives.

Welsh Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams warns that this month’s decision to limit welfare rises to 1 per cent a year for the next three years will worsen the problem.

“That is not unique to Wales, but it is hitting us particularly hard,” he has told the House of Commons.

Meanwhile, the government is abandoning a scheme that forced energy firms cheaply to offer home-owners energy-saving measures, such as insulation.

Next month, new rules will come into force. Instead, loans will be given, and repaid subsequently through gas and electricity bills – but the 7.5 per cent interest rate will deter many, opponents argue.

Between the renewable energy levy and proceeds from EU emission trading auctions, the treasury will be taking in an average of £4 billion a year every year until 2027.

“Both these measures will lift the market price for energy and hence the consumer will pay more,” the government advisers warn, adding that the money is not being used to cut the UK’s energy consumption.

Existing housing need to be better insulated and new houses must be better built from the off,” they say. “Such a change will cost money, more money than any government has been able to commit thus far.

“It is clear that a major step change in energy efficiency is the only viable and long-term solution if we are to have any hope of reducing the financial, physical and psychological health impacts of the ever- increasing cost of energy bills.”