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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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.