David Cameron should freeze energy bills to help freezing pensioners

With excess winter deaths up by 29% and bills up by £300 since the election, it's time for the government to act.

Winter in Britain has traditionally been a major public health challenge, with temperatures dropping and a spike in the number of people falling ill, having accidents, going to A&E, or even succumbing to the cold. But two chilling statistics out this week show us all too clearly that Britain can do better than this.

First it was revealed that episodes of hypothermia have jumped by 40% over the three years since the 2010 election. Doctors treated more than 28,000 cases in NHS hospitals in England last year alone. Then on Tuesday, we learnt that there was a 29% surge in the number of people who died unnecessarily last winter.

The technical term for the figures published by the Office for National Statistics is 'excess winter deaths' – this is the number of additional deaths that occur during winter months compared to the rest of the year. In total, 31,100 more people died between December and last March. That’s 31,100 deaths that by their very definition were entirely preventable.

This isn’t just a one-off that can be explained away by a single cold winter. It’s reflective of the huge pressures being felt across our NHS because people are struggling to keep themselves warm. For every person who tragically loses their life over the winter months, eight more have to be admitted to hospital. That works out at just under a quarter of a million extra patients at a time when David Cameron has put our A&E services into crisis.

Our NHS spends a staggering £850m each year treating winter-related diseases brought on by cold housing. And that’s the key point. According to the World Health Organisation, as many as 30% of excess winter deaths are directly caused by people living in homes that aren’t warm enough.

There are three things the government should be doing right now to address this very serious problem. First, we can’t combat fuel poverty without addressing the fact that our energy market is broken and too many people are being charged sky high prices for their gas and electricity. Energy bills have gone up by £300 since the last election and a typical household now pays an eye-watering £1,400 a year. But while wholesale energy prices have risen just 1.6% since 2011, the Big Six energy giants have hiked prices by an average 10.4% a year over the same period.

That’s why Labour has pledged to freeze gas and electricity prices, break up the Big Six and reset the market to deliver fairer prices in the future. We would also move all pensioners aged over 75 onto the cheapest energy tariff. When over 80% of the people who lose their lives in winter are 75 or older, it makes sense to do this for the age group most vulnerable to cold weather and least likely to be able to access the cheapest energy deals online.

Second, we need to tackle the cost of living crisis. It’s no surprise many people feel nervous about turning their thermostat up when households are £1,600 worse off since 2010 and prices have risen faster than wages in 40 of the last 41 months. That’s why we need to put money in people’s pockets by incentivising firms to pay a living wage, extending childcare and building an economy that works for working people.

Third, much more needs to be done to improve the thermal efficiency of our homes. It’s no coincidence that the region I represent, the North West, has both the highest rate of excess winter deaths and one of the deepest levels of fuel poverty in the country. Ultimately, the best way to help people who can’t afford to properly heat their homes is by reducing the amount of gas and electricity they need to use in the first place.

But as a country we have some of the most energy inefficient domestic properties in Europe. Conversely, countries like Germany, the Netherlands and across Scandinavia have far lower levels of winter mortality than the UK despite many of them having a much harsher winter climate. Take Sweden for instance. The weather there is 7 degrees colder on average, but a home in Dudley uses 4 to 5 times more energy than a typical house in Malmo.

Yet progress in insulating our homes under this government has been utterly lamentable. More than 10,000 people were supposed to sign up to the Green Deal this year, but only 219 have had measures installed so far under the flagship energy efficiency scheme. Its twin ECO scheme is poorly targeted and estimated to lift just 250,000 households out of fuel poverty over the next 10 years. That’s 50,000 fewer than fell into fuel poverty last winter alone.

It’s time David Cameron took some real action to help people most threatened by the cold this winter. Too many pensioners will be freezing tonight - the Prime Minister would do far better to freeze energy bills instead. 

David Cameron during a press conference held on the second day of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in Sri Lanka on 16 November 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Luciana Berger is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree and Shadow Minister for Energy & Climate Change.

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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster