Cold Homes Kill
‘It's by invitation only,’ a guard at the entrance to the House of Commons told me on Wednesday morning. I was trying to join the people from Fuel Poverty Action (FPA) who had just gone in, uninvited, for a 'warm-up'. The activists had chosen the day of the chancellor’s autumn statement to ask MPs about measures being taken to ensure people can afford to heat their homes. When I got to the lobby, I saw the group surrounded by police. Five minutes later, they were on their way out, chanting: 'No more deaths from fuel poverty.' 'Cold homes kill,' one of their banners said. Winter excess deaths in England and Wales in 2014-15 – the number of people who died between December and March minus the average over the rest of the year – have been estimated by the Office for National Statistics at 43,900, the highest for 15 years. According to the World Health Organisation, at least one third of those deaths are likely to have been caused by fuel poverty.
The Green MP Caroline Lucas told the FPA activists huddling in the lobby that 'the government can't escape the reality of these figures'. A woman with a handwritten note, realising she wasn't going to have much time for a speech, said simply: 'Prepayment meters.' Lucas agreed that they are ‘evil’. Nearly six million people in the UK have prepayment meters, more than half a million of which have been forcibly installed. Energy suppliers can do it by a court order if customers fall into debt. The meters are one of the topics covered in FPA's guide to keeping your bills down and making sure your rights are not infringed.
In his autumn statement, George Osborne promised that 'the £12 billion of welfare savings we committed to at the election will be delivered in full'. He also said: 'I can announce we’re introducing a cheaper domestic energy efficiency scheme that... will save an average of £30 a year from the energy bills of 24 million households.'
Under the current energy company obligation scheme, suppliers have to provide domestic energy efficiency measures: roof and wall insulation, as well as the replacement of old boilers, with some focus on low-income families. From April 2017, the scheme will be replaced by a new five-year obligation, which 'will upgrade the energy efficiency of over 200,000 homes per year, saving those homes up to £300 off their annual energy bill, tackling the root cause of fuel poverty and delivering on the government’s commitment to help one million more homes this Parliament,' the Treasury says. 'More details will be eagerly awaited,' an energy consultant told me, 'but it sounds like the mechanism will be broadly the same. The worrying thing is that the government is reducing the pot of money for energy efficiency.'
A report by Age UK released on Monday warns that 'urgent action must be taken to eradicate fuel poverty by improving the energy efficiency' of British homes. The report suggests that the government’s targets are unclear and would 'make it impossible to know exactly how many of the 2.35 million fuel poor households in England... will get any help at all over the next 15 years'. It also says that 'our older housing stock needs more radical treatment' than has been applied through the past energy efficiency schemes.
'Reducing carbon emissions from heating will require more focus,' the energy consultant told me, 'and energy efficiency can be part of this, coupled with things like the Renewable Heat Incentive, which the government is keeping alive.' Not intact, though. 'We will reform the Renewable Heat Incentive to save £700 million,’ Osborne said.