Fuel poverty 'will claim 2,700 victims this winter'

Interim report from an independent review of fuel poverty says the number of people living in cold homes contributes to Britain's unusually high rates of 'excess winter deaths'

Almost 3,000 people in England and Wales will die this winter because they cannot afford to heat their homes, a report suggests – more than the number killed in traffic accidents each year.

Commissioned by the government, the Hills Fuel Poverty Review found that if just 10% of UK winter deaths are caused by fuel poverty – a conservative estimate it claims – 2,700 people will perish as a direct result of being fuel poor.

The report also found that between 2004 and 2009 the "fuel poverty gap" (the extra amount those with badly insulated homes and poor heating systems would need to spend to keep warm) increased by 50% to £1.1bn as a result of rising fuel prices.

By the end of 2011, 4.1 million households in England are expected to be in fuel poverty. Households are considered fuel poor if they need to spend more than 10% of their income on fuel use to heat a home to an adequate standard of warmth, generally defined as 21C in the living room and 18C in other occupied rooms.

In October 2010, the government announced it would commission an independent review of fuel poverty, investigating how to better define and measure it and tackle the underlying problems that lead to it.

The interim report from the review, written by John Hills, director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, leaves the government in no doubt as to the breadth and depth of the fuel poverty problem engulfing many of the UK's most vulnerable households.

The report, which backed the current definition of fuel poverty, found that living in cold homes has a series of effects on illness and mental health, but the most serious is its contribution to Britain's unusually high rates of "excess winter deaths".

In the report, Hills writes: "There are many contributors to this problem, but even if only a 10th of them are due directly to fuel poverty, that means that 2,700 people in England and Wales are dying each year as a result – more than the number killed in traffic accidents."

Hills also found that while it is essential that the energy efficiency of the UK's housing stock is improved, those on low incomes in the worst housing cannot afford to pay for it and "need assistance from elsewhere".

He said: "The evidence shows how serious the problem of fuel poverty is, increasing health risks and hardship for millions of people and hampering urgent action to reduce energy waste and carbon emissions.

"This review confirms that the way in which the problem is currently described in law is correct: people are affected by fuel poverty if they are 'living on a lower income in a home which cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost'."

The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 stated that fuel poverty should be eradicated "as far as reasonably practicable" by 2016, but while fuel poverty in England fell by four-fifths between 1996 and 2004 (from 5.1 million households to 1.2 million households) it has more than trebled since.

'Urgent action must start today'

Derek Lickorish, chair of the government's Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, welcomed the report, and said it should "set an alarm bell ringing very loudly for government, Ofgem, suppliers and society as a whole".

"This disgrace is further compounded with the conclusion that households in or near the margins of poverty were faced with additional costs of some £1.1bn at 2009 price levels to keep warm compared to more affluent households. That figure will be even more after the recent round of energy price increases.

"Urgent action must start today to mitigate the impact of high energy bills, including reviewing the way in which costs are recovered through energy bills to decarbonise our energy."

Fuel poverty charity National Energy Action, which stated in September 2011 that there had been a relentless increase in the scale of fuel poverty across the UK, said the report vindicated 30 years of building awareness and tackling the causes and symptoms of fuel poverty.

Chief executive Jenny Saunders said: "The report clearly indicates that however we define fuel poverty or formulate remedial policies, the scale of the problem is vast. We now need to rapidly adapt public policy to improve the health, financial security and wellbeing of fuel-poor households in order to do what is necessary to eradicate fuel poverty by the statutory target date of 2016."

Michelle Mitchell, charity director at Age UK, added: "People are cutting back on heating or food to help make ends meet at a time of escalating fuel prices. This increases the risk of many older people becoming seriously ill. We need more immediate clarity and detail on what help will be available through the [government's proposed] Green Deal, particularly for people on low incomes, and a sensible long-term way of reducing energy."

Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: "It is horrifying that so many people are dying each year because they can't afford to heat their home. Hills is right to stick by the current definition of fuel poverty because it focuses attention on the right people. Today's report is yet another reminder that fuel costs just have to come down."


Mark King

The GuardianTramp

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