In recent weeks a dramatic drop in temperature and heavy snowfalls has triggered this year’s first Cold Weather Payment in the Easington constituency.
These payments are issued when the average temperature is zero or below for seven consecutive days, helping those most vulnerable to the cold.
However, over the last two years, all households are feeling the pressure as fuel bills rise in a stagnating economy, and the Government withdraws support for energy efficiency programmes.
The first casualty of the Government’s policy of austerity were those in receipt of Winter Fuel Allowance, when the payment was cut from £250 to £200 for over 60’s, and from £400 to £300 for over 80’s.
This is despite the fact that, according to the Office for National Statistics, there were 24,000 excess winter deaths last year, the vast majority, 19,500 were people aged over 75. GPs report that the number of consultations for respiratory problems increases by up to 19 per cent for every degree below 5 °C the temperature drops.
Age UK estimate that cold homes cost the NHS £1.36 billion due to illness and deaths associated with cold weather. It is illogical to cut fuel payments that stop people needing NHS treatment. It not only costs the taxpayer more in the long run but causes immense human suffering.
Energy bills continue to rise unabated, up by almost £300 since this Tory-led Government came to power. This year has been no different. The Big Six Energy Companies that dominate 99% of the market continue to operate like a cartel, increasing prices in tandem with the latest round of price hikes adding up to £122 to the average bill. While the system fails consumers, it is working for shareholders who received £7 billion in dividends this year.
During Labour’s time in office we introduced the Winter Fuel Payment, increased the Cold Weather Payment, and improved energy efficiency through the Warm Front Scheme. This took nearly 1.75 million households out of fuel poverty, including half a million vulnerable households.
However, along with cuts to the Winter Fuel Allowance, the Coalition Government have become the first administration since the 1970s not to have a Government-funded energy efficiency programme following the closure of the Warm Front Scheme earlier this month.
Warm Front helped over two million people to make their homes more energy efficient and cut their energy bill. In each year under Labour over 200,000 people benefited, however, as the Government wound up the scheme the numbers receiving support fell to 55,014 in the last two years, despite the scheme being under-spent by £50 million last year, and is on course for a similar under-spend this year.
Not only are fewer people receiving support, they are receiving less. Last year the average grant was over £3000, but this year the average spend was only £997, in Easington the average spend was just £785.
The consequence of short-sighted Government policies has seen a rise in the number of households in England and Wales living in fuel poverty increasing from under one in five (18%) to one in four today (25%). The Fuel Poverty Advisory Group warns that 300,000 extra households could be pushed into fuel poverty this winter, and Transform UK forecast that more than nine million households will be living in fuel poverty by 2016.
Britain’s current energy policy is broken, and there is failure at every level, whether it is energy companies exploiting consumers, or the Government withdrawing support to the most vulnerable. We need new solutions, not more broken policies.