Evening News: Far too many people are dying because they simply can't afford to stay warm

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Last year I was made a Shadow Junior Minister for Energy and Climate Change. It’s been a real challenge and I’ve had to get my head around lots of complex issues. Sometimes, when the jargon starts flying around, it’s easy to fixate on the numbers and the technical details.

But every now and then I am suddenly brought up short by the human reality behind the numbers.  Six months ago I didn’t know what an “EWD” was.

Now I do. It’s an ‘Excess Winter Death’.

Last year I was made a Shadow Junior Minister for Energy and Climate Change. It’s been a real challenge and I’ve had to get my head around lots of complex issues. Sometimes, when the jargon starts flying around, it’s easy to fixate on the numbers and the technical details.

But every now and then I am suddenly brought up short by the human reality behind the numbers.  Six months ago I didn’t know what an “EWD” was.

Now I do. It’s an ‘Excess Winter Death’.

That’s the increased number of people who die in the winter months compared to the number who die in the rest of the year. Last winter there were 43,900 in England and Wales, that’s the highest number for 15 years. But the human shock, was learning that the World Health Organisation has calculated that 30% of those deaths were due to vulnerable people living in a cold home. That means over 13,000 people died last winter because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes properly. In one of the richest countries in the world, in one of the mildest winters we’ve had in years, over 13,000 people died for the want of a few extra quid over the winter months.

Or how about this one? We all know what a ‘disconnection’ is – it’s when you don’t, or can’t, pay your gas or electricity bill, the utility company is allowed to ‘disconnect’ you. We all understand that is fair enough if someone is just blagging the system, we can’t expect private companies to routinely provide goods and not get paid for them. But have you ever heard of ‘self-disconnection’? It’s the jargon for when people who are on a pre-payment meter simply stop putting money in it. If someone’s doing that in the middle of winter, it’s because they have literally run out of money.

Self-disconnection is an awful thing.  Normally, utilities companies aren’t allowed to disconnect people without doing some checks on what’s happening. They must offer a payment plan to help people get back on their feet. In the winter months they aren’t allowed to disconnect pensioners – and quite right too. But people who self-disconnect don’t get any of these rights, they just quietly stop using power, and some of them die as a result.

And if you think that’s bad, just think, people on prepay meters, the poorest in the country, actually pay on average around £250 more per year for their energy than richer folk who get the cheapest deals which aren’t available on prepay. Or that it can cost hundreds of pounds to get your prepay meter changed to a standard one.

This is ripping off the poorest and most vulnerable.

But this isn’t just about injustice. It’s about plain commonsense. The NHS is going to spend £22billion over the next 15 years on cold-related illnesses. We could save money, employ thousands of people in insulating our coldest homes, and at the same time we would be making massive steps towards reducing our carbon emissions and saving the planet for future generations. Where’s the downside?

Yet this government has refused Labour’s request to make efficiency-saving a National Infrastructure priority. In fact, in George Osborne’s last budget, he announced huge new cuts to the only GB-wide energy efficiency programme. It’s another cruel cut from this cruel government but it’s also penny wise and pound-foolish.

Luckily at a local level, despite all the savage cuts imposed on them, Norwich City Council is really taking a lead on this. Their Cosy City project simplifies all the help that is available to improve your home, ‘Warm and Well in Norfolk’ will provide basic provision for the really desperate. They can even provide some small weekly grants for those in really urgent need.

My staff calculate that over 37,000 people in Norwich (1 in every 4 households) are prepay users, many of them without any choice, and I have started a campaign to end the prepay rip-off. If you, or someone you know, is on prepay I really want to hear your experiences – you’ll find a form at clivelewis.org/prepay.

So if you’ve got elderly neighbours who aren’t well-off, check up on them, let them know there is some help available. And if you live in a house that’s snug and warm, if you can run a hot bath when you need one and cook a meal on the stove when you’re hungry – spare a thought for those hidden among us who are slowly, steadily, dying of cold this winter.

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