The government rides to the rescue of the Big Six on the backs of the fuel poor

The planned cuts to the Energy Company Obligation will undermine the fight against fuel poverty.

The BBC reports today that the government is planning to cut annual costs of the Energy Company Obligation (Eco) in half as part of a package to reduce energy bills by £50. The Eco is more of a social policy than a carbon policy and is intended to tackle fuel poverty. Energy efficiency is the best long-term route to addressing rising bills since it permanently reduces energy demand. But the Prime Minister regards it as "green crap" so it is in the firing line in George Osborne's Autumn Statement.

By stretching the deadline from 2015 to 2017, and therefore halving ambition, the move means that around 40,000 homes who were entitled to free energy efficiency improvements will miss out this year and next. Equally worryingly, the Green Business Council estimates that 10,000 jobs will be lost as a result of the government's announcement. Until now, the policy had been a major driver of job creation all around the country.

The move also lets the worst performing companies off the hook. British Gas have only delivered up to 9% of the measures they were expected to carry out by March 2015 year while the best performer, E.ON, have done up to 74%. The former are being rewarded for coming bottom of the class.

This is not to say that there aren't problems with the scheme. At present, the policy is poorly targeted with only 20 per cent of measures going to those in fuel poverty. The remainder are received by low income households with relatively lower energy bills. In a major new report, IPPR proposes a new 'Help to Heat' scheme to tackle energy bills without lowering ambition on fuel poverty.

We propose a new 'house by house' approach of free assessments to determine whether households are in fuel poverty or not. Those that are would be entitled to free measures ensuring that 197,000 fuel poor homes were treated every year - up from 80,000 at present, or just 40,000 if the scheme is halved. Those that are not would receive an energy efficiency assessment - worth £120 - for free.

These households could use this information to take out a Green Deal loan and have energy efficiency measures installed. But as Newsnight highlighted last night, the government has achieved only 1 per cent of its target suggesting that, with interest rates of 8 per cent, the policy is failing. IPPR suggests using some of the Eco money to subsidise the cost of Green Deal loans turning it from a good deal to a great deal. It would cost the government just £16.7m to provide zero per cent loans for 200,000 households. These families and individuals would save £136 per year on their bills.

But all this looks like wishful thinking as the government have caved to the demands of the energy companies. Instead of improving its own policy, the government is riding to the rescue of the Big Six on the back of the fuel poor.

British Gas branding on the entrance to Leicester's Aylestone Road British Gas Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw is Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

Show Hide image

When it comes to the "Statin Wars", it's the patients I pity

Underlying the Statin Wars are two different world-views: the technological and holistic.

September saw the latest salvos in what has become known in medical circles as the Statin Wars. The struggle is being waged most publicly in the pages of Britain’s two leading medical journals. In the red corner is the British Medical Journal, which in 2014 published two papers highly critical of statins, arguing that they cause far more side effects than supposed and pointing out that, although they do produce a modest reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease, they don’t make much difference to overall mortality (you may avoid a heart attack, only to succumb to something else).

In the blue corner is the Lancet, which has long been the publishing platform for the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration, a group of academics whose careers have been spent defining and expounding the benefits of statins. The CTT was infuriated by the BMJ papers, and attempted to force the journal to retract them. When that failed, they set about a systematic review of the entire statin literature. Their 30-page paper appeared in the Lancet last month, and was widely press-released as being the final word on the subject.

A summary would be: statins do lots of good and virtually no harm, and there really is no need for anyone to fuss about prescribing or taking them. In addition, the Lancet couldn’t resist a pop at the BMJ, which it asserts acted irresponsibly in publishing the sceptical papers two years ago.

Where does all this leave the average patient, trying to weigh up the usefulness or otherwise of these drugs? And what about the jobbing doctor, trying to give advice? The view from no-man’s-land goes something like this. If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, or if you suffer from angina or other conditions arising from furred-up arteries, then you should consider taking a statin. They’re not the miracle pill their proponents crack them up to be, but they do tip the odds a little in your favour. Equally, if you try them and suffer debilitating side effects (many people do), don’t stress about stopping them. There are lots more effective things you could be doing – a brisk daily walk effects a greater risk reduction than any cholesterol-lowering pill.

What of the millions of healthy people currently prescribed statins because they have been deemed to be “at risk” of future heart disease? This is where it gets decidedly murky. The published evidence, with its focus on cardiovascular outcomes alone, overstates the case. In healthy people, statins don’t make any appreciable difference to overall survival and they cause substantially more ill-effects than the literature suggests. No one should be prescribed them without a frank discussion of these drawbacks, and they should never be taken in lieu of making lifestyle changes. Smoking cessation, a healthy diet, regular modest exercise, and keeping trim, are all far more important determinants of long-term health.

Underlying the Statin Wars are two different world-views. One is technological: we can rely on drugs to prevent future health problems. This perspective suffers substantial bias from vested interests – there’s a heck of a lot of money to be made if millions of people are put on to medication, and those who stand to profit make huge sums available to pay for research that happens to advance their cause.

The other world-view is holistic: we can take care of ourselves better simply by living well, and the fetishising of pharmaceutical solutions negates this message. I have great sympathy with this perspective. It certainly chimes with the beliefs of many patients, very few of whom welcome the prospect of taking drugs indefinitely.

Yet the sad truth is that, irrespective of our lifestyles, we will all of us one day run into some kind of trouble, and having medical treatments to help – however imperfectly – is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. In arguing for a greater emphasis on lifestyle medicine, we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other way.

Phil Whitaker’s latest novel is “Sister Sebastian’s Library” (Salt)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood