The onset of winter will see a rise in deaths of vulnerable members of the community. During winter 2010-11 over 25,000 more people died in the UK compared with non-winter periods.
The Government has no policy to counter these unnecessary deaths.
That was the conclusion I drew from the debate I called on Tuesday pressing for action.
Where we need clear decisions the Prime Minister merely sows confusion. What else can we make of his off the cuff comment that all of us will be able to buy our energy at the lowest possible price? It’s a great idea but we won’t be able to deliver that objective with the current ownership of energy companies.
The Government grudgingly admits that their current programme, called the Warm Home Discount Scheme, does not deliver for vulnerable groups.
All of us consumers have a levy on our bills so that discounts can be given to what are defined as ‘core’ and ‘broader’ groups of vulnerable consumers.
There are two huge problems with this scheme.
The core group consists of 700,000 narrowly defined consumers. Energy companies select their own eligibility criteria for the broader group, and in the past year only 234,000 received help. So in total, rebates were given to little over 900,000 consumers, when the Government’s most recent estimate put the number of vulnerable households suffering fuel poverty at 4 million.
Secondly, while those that are helped must be pleased to get a rebate, there is no obligation on the energy companies to ensure that these consumers are buying at their cheapest rate.
Last week Which?, the consumer affairs magazine, stated that 75 percent of consumers are on the most expensive tariffs. It would be surprising if 75 percent of those receiving the £120 rebate aren’t in the same category.
So we consumers are extending help to vulnerable households by way of an annual £120 cheque and the energy companies are directly pocketing that subsidy and to add insult to injury, overcharging the vast majority of this group.
So what is to be done? The Government inherited a Cold Weather Payment scheme which helps vulnerable households when temperatures fall to very low levels. Around 4 million households are covered, and there are 4 million vulnerable households in fuel poverty. There is clearly a significant overlap between these two groups.
I suggested to the Government last week that energy companies should be obliged to provide their cheapest tariff to these 4 million people.
There will be other things to do, of course. How can we help whole groups of consumers take on the energy companies and get each of their supplies switched to the cheapest tariff? But that will take time.
The scheme I proposed could be working almost immediately. Ofgem, the regulator, has made clear that there are no regulatory or legal barriers to prevent the Government insisting on such a scheme for this winter.
If the Government acts now we can prevent the big hike in deaths that are characteristic of this country during the winter months. Inaction by the Government will make them complicit in this terrible state of affairs.