Simon Read: We must ensure that help reaches those in fuel poverty


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The Independent Online

The number of people who die because they can't afford to adequately heat their homes could be as high as 8,000 a year. Previous government estimates had the total at less than 3,000. When The Independent reported the new calculations this week, it put into sharp focus our ongoing campaign for fair energy.

I've been talking to a number of gas and electricity suppliers – both from the Big Six and others – about ways to help people afford their fuel bills. The fact that even one vulnerable person is put in the dreadful position of having to turn down their heating because they can't afford it, and consequently put their life at risk, is shameful.

There is no simple solution. Energy bosses say there's no reason for anyone to do without adequate heating. They point to the schemes and grants available through firms and from the Government that could help vulnerable people. But the scandal is that cash doesn't always get to the right folk.

The Winter Fuel Allowance is a case in point. It goes to everyone aged 60 or older, with £200 going to households with pensioners aged 60 to 79 and £300 for those where at least one person is 80. But how many of the people who receive it actually need it?

Do you think £200 makes any difference to Joanna Lumley or Peter Stringfellow? What about Helen Mirren, or Terry Wogan? But all these folk qualify for the payment. This year, it's pleasing to report, all the above – and many other comfortably-off pensioners – donated their payments to the Surviving Winter campaign, set up by the Community Foundation Network.

The money raised – more than £2m to date – will go to help at least 20,000 vulnerable people across the UK. But the campaign proved that there's an appetite for the handout to be made more fair and targeted at those who really need it. In short, it should be means-tested.

The Department for Work and Pensions knows which older people qualify for pension credit. They are likely to be the same people for whom the winter fuel allowance makes a real difference. Keeping the total amount the same but channelling it to the right folk would be a great boost in the campaign to reduce fuel poverty deaths.

Further, through the benefits system, the Government can identify families at risk who may be cutting back on heating because of the rising costs. Sharing that database with energy suppliers so that they can make vulnerable people a priority sounds like a sensible step towards reducing the problem.

But that would involve some joined-up thinking by government and businesses. Let's hope our campaign forces them to do so – before the fuel poverty fatality number rises even further.

Banks were back in the firing line this week after the latest complaints data was published by the Financial Ombudsman Service. The overall figures for the second half of 2011 were down because complaints about payment protection insurance stalled while the banks and financial authorities dithered about payouts.

But for most areas, complaints showed a massive increase. The number of complaints about life insurance and pensions soared 42 per cent. Complaints related to mortgages were up 38 per cent. Meanwhile insurance complaints climbed 22 per cent.

Do you think that paints a picture of a banking sector grappling with a major loss of trust among customers? Or do you believe that the banks are simply continuing to fail to deal with complaints properly in the hope that people will give up, faced with complicated red tape or barriers to getting a proper answer?

Personally I don't know, having had no need to complain lately. So I'd be keen to hear your experience if you've had to complain. Did you get a positive response from your bank, or did you get the feeling it simply wanted you to go away? Please send me your thoughts: I'll be happy to publish a section, good or bad!

Wine connoisseurs will be salivating at news yesterday that the 2009 Bordeaux has been rated the best ever in modern vintage terms. The powerful wine critic Robert Parker gave 19 wines a perfect 100 score.

The news sent the wine investment community into a frenzy of anticipation, predicting surging worldwide demand and increasing prices.

Does that mean you should put your hard-earned into a case or two of wine? It's a thought. There is plenty of evidence of fine wines producing excellent investment returns, of up to 30 per cent a year in some instances.

But investing in wine brings problems, not least the potential volatility of the market and the fact that you have to keep a considerable amount of cash tied up in a wine investment. For instance a case of Lafite 2009 – one of the 19 wines given a 100 rating yesterday – would set you back around £11,000 at the moment.

Then there are the ongoing storage costs. You can't keep these sorts of wines at home – not unless you accept that you will more than likely ruin them by not keeping them in tip-top conditions. They won't be ready to drink for years, so need to be kept at exactly the right temperature. So you'll need to pay for them to be stored, normally at a special "bonded" warehouse, which avoids import duty.

The theory is you never actually see the wines. Just let them grow in value until you cash in on them. That's if they grow in value. And if you can resist the temptation to pay the duty and free up the wine to taste it. Me? I'd almost certainly do the latter.

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