Government must act before there are any more fuel poverty deaths


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The Independent Online

Ofgem’s predictions of further soaring energy prices are yet another slap in the face for hard-pressed folk across the country already struggling to afford to pay to heat their homes. Householders have seen their energy bills soar 159 per cent since 2004, hitting more than £1,400 for an average user after this winter’s round of increases.

They have left an estimated seven million people living in fuel poverty, meaning they are forced to spend a tenth of their income on energy bills. And even without Ofgem’s news, that figure is expected to soar.

Of course, not all those who are defined as being in fuel poverty are struggling. But in hundreds of thousands of extreme cases, people being forced to choose whether to eat or heat their home.

Ofgem declined to say how much prices could rise for Britain’s energy users. But when the average annual bill hits £1,500, there could be widescale problems. A study published last year predicted that bills of that level would leave four out of 10 people unable to afford their heating.

Already we know that many people – especially the elderly – turn down the heat to save cash. But they do so in cold weather with drastic consequences.

The official number of people who died at winter 2011 unnecessarily was 24,000. Only a small number of those deaths can be directly linked to fuel poverty but you can bet many unwell people were made worse because of inadequate heating. The deaths are the true sign of the failure of the Government and the energy companies to successfully find a solution to consistently rising prices.

The signals are very clear – existing Government policies will ensure even higher prices for all in the next decade or so. Knowing that, it becomes essential to find ways to ensure that vulnerable people can afford to heat their homes.

For instance, there could be more publicity for initiatives such as the Home Heat Helpline, which puts people on low incomes in touch with grants for insulation and discount and rebate schemes. The support is worth around £160.

Improved energy-efficiency cuts heat loss and, consequently, the size of bills. The cost of improving homes is enormous but the solution is at hand, according to the Energy Bill Revolution. The government could use profits from carbon taxes.

With the Treasury expected to rake in £60bn from the taxes over the next 15 years, the cash is clearly there. It’s time the government listened to such proposals before it’s too late and there are further fuel poverty deaths on its hands.