Were you to list the factors that distinguish civilisation from barbarism, this would come close to the top: that the elderly are not left to die of cold. By this measure, the United Kingdom is a cruel land. Although we usually have one of the smallest differences between winter and summer temperatures at these latitudes, we also have one of the highest levels of excess winter deaths. Roughly twice as many people, per capita, die here than in Scandanavia and other parts of northern Europe, though our winters are typically milder(1). Even Siberia has lower levels of excess winter deaths than we do(2). Between 25,000 and 30,000 people a year are hastened to the grave by the cold here(3) – this winter it could be much worse.
Why? Inequality. We have an economic elite untouched and unmoved by the ills afflicting other people. It survives all changes of government. Its need for profit outweighs other people’s need for survival. Here’s how our brutal system operates.
Fuel poverty is defined as having to spend 10% or more of your income on keeping your home at a decent temperature. Between 2003 and 2008 (the latest available figures) the number of households in fuel poverty here rose from 2 to 4.5 million(4). That’s not people; that’s households: this blight now afflicts 18% of the UK’s population. Yet, since 2000, over £25bn of our money has been spent on programmes ostensibly designed to prevent it(5). Admittedly, much of this spending doesn’t really have anything to do with fuel. The winter fuel payment is, in truth, a universal pension supplement which people can spend as they wish: it helps large numbers of the elderly to get by. But most of the other spending programmes are ill-conceived, unfair and unfocussed.
Even before the coalition took office, the government’s statutory advisers estimated that 7m households would be fuel-poor by 2016(6), which happens to be the date by which New Labour pledged to eliminate fuel poverty. As the incomes of the poor fall and the Tories deregulate still further, it could get even worse.
The main reason is that the privatised, liberalised utility companies have been allowed to get away with murder. In her excellent new book Fixing Fuel Poverty, Brenda Boardman shows that fuel poverty has risen so steeply in the UK because public control over the energy companies is so weak(7). In 2002 the regulator, Ofgem, decided that it would stop regulating consumer prices. The energy companies immediately increased their profit margins: 10-fold in one case(8). When world energy prices rise, the companies raise their tariffs, often far more steeply than the wholesale price justifies. When they fall, domestic prices often stay where they are.
The price rises are exacerbated by policies which penalise the poor. People who use pre-payment meters to buy gas and electricity (who are often the poorest) are stung for an extra £120 a year(9). Those who consume the most energy (generally the rich) are subsidised by everyone else: they pay a lower tariff beyond a certain level of use. It ought to be the other way round: the first units you consume should be the cheapest. Before the election, both the Tories and the Lib Dems demanded an inquiry into competition in the energy market. They’re not demanding it any more(10).
There should be a perfect synergy between climate change and social justice policies. As the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee points out, “improving the energy efficiency of homes is the most effective way of tackling fuel poverty.”(11) But the government’s green policies are grossly unfair and regressive: everyone pays at an equal rate for reducing energy emissions, yet those who need the most help to green their homes and reduce their costs don’t get it. Policies such as the European emissions trading system, the carbon emissions reduction target and the feed-in tariff are, according to the government’s Climate Change Committee, likely to throw another 1.7m people into fuel poverty by 2022(12). This is an outrage.
The main scheme for improving the homes of the fuel poor, Warm Front, is so leaky and badly constructed that, if it were a house, it would be condemned and demolished. Only 25% of the money it spends relieves fuel poverty(13). There’s no requirement that the worst homes are treated, or that they are brought up to an acceptable level of energy efficiency. Boardman discovered that “the proportion of expenditure going to the fuel poor is less than they contribute”(14).
Now the scheme has been suspended. The government has launched a consultation on how it could work better when it resumes, but there will be much less money(15): even if it starts to work, it will address only a fraction of the escalating problem.
Nothing will be done to reduce fuel poverty until governments discipline one of the least regulated energy markets in the rich world – controlling profits and prices – and help those who need it most. Green policies must be funded by transferring money from richer consumers to poorer ones. It’s a scandal that none of this was addressed by the Labour government. It would be little short of miraculous if it were tackled by the Tories. But until something is done, the cold will keep killing, at levels which even the Siberians don’t have to endure.
1. Brenda Boardman, 2010. Fixing Fuel Poverty, p168. Earthscan, London.
2. As above, p168.
3. As above, p168.
4. Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2010. Annual Report On Fuel Poverty Statistics 2010. Table 1, Page 3. http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/Statistics/fuelpoverty/610-annual-fuel-poverty-statistics-2010.pdf
5. House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, 30th March 2010. Fuel Poverty:
Fifth Report of Session 2009–10, Volume I, Page 6. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmenergy/424/424i.pdf
6. The Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, cited by the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, as above, Page 7.
7. Brenda Boardman, as above.
8. In 2002, Centrica raised its profit margin on domestic energy sales from 0.4% to 4.2%. By 2008, it had risen again, to 8.8%. Brenda Boardman, as above, Page 77.
9. Brenda Boardman, as above, Page 82.
11. House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, as above, Page 3.
12. Cited by Brenda Boardman, as above, Page 92-93.
13. Cited by Brenda Boardman, as above, Page 148.
14. Cited by Brenda Boardman, as above, 92.
Published in the Guardian 28th December 2010.