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Leading article: The chilling price of the great energy rip-off

It is a moral imperative to alleviate fuel poverty among the elderly

It was a bitter winter for the elderly last year. Figures released yesterday by the Office for National Statistics show that some 36,700 more people (many of them pensioners) died in England and Wales than would normally be expected. This was a 49 per cent increase on the "excess deaths" registered in the winter before.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health pointed out yesterday that "the causes of excess winter deaths are very complex". This is clearly true. It is extremely rare for someone to freeze to death these days. People tend to die from respiratory illness, which might, or might not, have been brought on by seasonal cold weather.

Nevertheless to give the impression that these deaths are some sort of mysterious phenomenon is disingenuous. There are strong grounds for linking this spike, in large part, to rising fuel poverty among pensioners.

Last winter's increase in deaths coincided with a period when energy prices were elevated. And polls have repeatedly shown that, when fuel prices rise, elderly people with limited means respond by heating their homes less than is healthy, which heightens the chances of them falling ill.

One thing these statistics emphasise is the need for the Government to step up efforts to insulate the national housing stock, especially older homes, through its Warm Front programme. An energy efficiency drive will not only help the elderly keep warm in winter, but also reduce national carbon emissions. Cuts in public spending are inevitable in the medium term, but this is one area in which it would make no strategic sense for a government, of any political stripe, to seek savings.

Another imperative is to strengthen the Winter Fuel Allowance, the Government's programme for subsidising pensioners to heat their homes in the colder months. The Government deserves credit for what it has achieved in this area in the past decade. In the cold winters of the late 1990s, excess deaths peaked at around 50,000 a year.

The reduction in winter mortality among the elderly since then is, in large part, thanks to the Winter Fuel Allowance. But many elderly people in Britain still do not take advantage of this benefit. More official effort needs to be given to making the public aware of it and to help the elderly access it.

But pensioner fuel poverty is a problem that needs to be attacked from every angle. As this newspaper's "great energy rip-off" campaign of recent months has made clear, the six dominant energy suppliers have kept their retail energy prices well above the level they would be if the market was functioning properly. Significant falls in the wholesale price of oil and gas have not been passed on to households.

For the comfortably off among us, this profiteering by the energy companies means the inconvenience of higher bills. But, as we have seen, it is also helping to push the most vulnerable in our society to take life-threatening risks. With energy prices still elevated, the number of excess deaths this winter could well be high once again.

In the end, this is a moral issue. It should be morally unacceptable in an affluent society such as Britain for elderly people to die because they cannot afford to heat their homes properly. Their plight demands action in several areas. But it is also one more powerful reason why the great energy rip-off must end.