Simon Read: Lower fuel bills could cut winter death rate

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The Independent Online

The energy companies have a lot to answer for. Their sky-high prices are causing hardship for millions in fuel poverty while the massive increase in the winter death rate last year is clearly partly due to older people not being able to afford to turn their heating on.

The Office for National Statistics said this week that 36,700 more people died during December 2008 and March 2009 than the previous year. The excess winter death rate was 25,300 in 2008 revealing a staggering 49 per cent rise. The vast majority of people who died during the winter months were aged over 75. What happened during 2008 that discouraged older people from turning on their heating? During the year, gas bills soared 51 per cent while electricity charges climbed 28 per cent. The move left some three million UK pensioners in fuel poverty, meaning they are now forced to spend at least a tenth of their income on energy bills.

"These people need more money – in the form of the winter fuel allowance – so that they can avoid having to decide whether to heat or eat," says Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention. "All older people need to be reassured that they will not be financially punished for keeping warm in the winter. The Government must give them confidence that they will be able to pay their bills by raising the winter fuel allowance to at least £500 for every household, introducing an industry-wide reduced social tariff for older customers and forcing the energy companies to pass on reductions in prices."

The campaign to force energy companies to change is growing. On Tuesday, John Grogan MP posted an Early Day Motion calling for a Competition Commission investigation into whether the "big six" energy companies are failing to pass on wholesale energy price cuts to consumers. The move was backed by watchdog Consumer Focus, which wrote to all MPs asking them to back the motion. By Thursday evening it only had a disappointing 104 signatures. But there's still time for others to show their support. Write to your own MP and ask them to sign. If enough signatures are added the Government may be forced to act. And if there's action, we could yet save thousands of lives this winter.

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