The Government unveiled its long-awaited Energy Bill on Thursday. It's the Coalition's blueprint for turning Britain's energy green. But the biggest revelation of Thursday's news was that households will be forced to subsidise the planned, new, low-carbon electricity generators by paying an extra £95 a year on their energy bill by 2020.
Bills are already set to soar in coming years, forcing even more vulnerable people than ever into fuel poverty when they can't afford to heat their homes. Which makes the news – also released on Thursday – that there were 24,000 extra deaths last winter in England and Wales, according to official figures, all the more shocking.
Not all of them were due to people turning down their heating because they couldn't afford to pay their bills, but plenty were. The World Health Organisation reckons that 30 per cent of winter deaths in Europe may be attributable to living in cold homes. If true, that means up to 7,200 people in England and Wales died last year from not living in warm homes.
Ed Matthew, director of the Energy Bill Revolution, which is calling on the Government to use cash raised from carbon taxes to help the fuel poor, said: "The tragedy is that thousands of these deaths are preventable. If UK homes were fully insulated it would significantly reduce the number who die from the cold each year."
On Thursday, protesters from the Fuel Poverty Action Group laid tombstones on the Treasury's steps to illustrate the Government's responsibility for fuel poverty deaths.
One of the campaigners, Joan Grant of the Greater London Pensioners' Association, said: "I try not to put my heating on until 6.30pm in the evening but sometimes I have to give in before and when I do I worry about the bills. It's disgraceful that we should even have to think about keeping warm, but people like me are really frightened."
Research published on Tuesday revealed that the Government has slashed the amount of cash it gives to help those in fuel poverty by a quarter over the last three years. Labour's shadow climate change minister, Luciana Berger, said the current government's policies are pushing more homes into fuel poverty, rather than tackling the problem.
"The most effective way people can save money on their bills is by improving their property's energy efficiency – but ministers are so out of touch they are making it harder to do," she said. With the frost beginning to bite this week, the shocking casualties of soaring energy bills may soon begin to mount up.
But there is some help from the Surviving Winter campaign, which was set up by the Community Foundation Network. It encourages well-off older people to hand over their Winter Fuel Allowance, which is then used to help vulnerable folk.With £200 going to households with pensioners aged 60 to 79 and £300 for those where at least one person is 80, donations quickly grow and some £500,000 has been raised by the campaign during the last 20 days.
More is needed, however.
by SIMON READ