The Scandal of Pensioner Winter Deaths

Chris Jones says we need to tackle the fuel poverty affecting older people in Wales.

Why is society in Wales so prepared to put up with more older people dying in the winter compared to other months of the year?

In 2012/13, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales confirmed that this is the case with 1,900 more deaths in the winter months, with 70% of these attributed to our over 75 year olds. This pattern is repeated year on year.

Why? Because as we age, we become frailer, our bodies are less able to cope with low temperatures and we become more susceptible to respiratory and circulatory illness.

This is backed up by accepted figures in Wales that 140,000 pensioners are in fuel poverty, meaning they need to spend more than 10% of their income on fuel costs.  

“Just turn the heating on”, I hear you say. It’s not as simple as that. With rising energy costs and many older people on a fixed income, many cannot afford to pay their fuel bills…  so they don’t turn on the heating.  Many older people face many difficult decisions, like choosing between eating or heating their home.

Many thousands of older people can’t survive on their state pension or are not claiming the benefits they are entitled to. They have boilers which are old, inefficient and use more fuel. They live in properties which aren’t insulated. They are on an expensive fuel tariff and don’t know how to change provider. They don’t know about the latest government grant scheme that just might be able to help them.

This isn’t good enough. It is clear that the system isn’t working because we still have older people dying in the winter who wouldn’t be dying in other months of the year.

While there are undoubtedly plenty of schemes that could help, there is confusion for older people about where to go and what help they can get, and we are not doing enough to find and help the people who need that help the most.

There have been numerous grant schemes, over many years, such as Home Energy Efficiency Scheme (HEES), Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT), Community Energy Saving Programme (CESP), and now, the NEST and Energy Company Obligation (ECO). There is lots of evidence to suggest that these schemes have helped improve many properties, helped many people on low incomes and reduced carbon emissions, particularly in the social housing sector. Housing associations and local authorities have undoubtedly carried out some great work with energy companies for the benefit of their properties and their tenants.

We now need to focus on the people we haven’t reached. One particularly affected group is low income, older owner occupiers dispersed in urban, suburban and rural areas across all of Wales. Finding these people requires more up front effort and is not as attractive to energy companies who have legal targets on the quantity of carbon emissions they need to reduce, so instead have targeted geographic energy efficiency schemes at scale.

As we head into the winter months and look ahead to the UK elections next year, we believe that the UK and Welsh Governments need a rebalancing of policy focus so that tackling fuel poverty and stopping winter deaths amongst our older people receives as much attention as reducing CO2 emissions.

We need co-ordinated action by government and energy companies to target advice and energy efficiency grants based on specific need of individuals as well as wider need to reduce the carbon footprint.

Chris Jones is Chief Executive of Care & Repair Cymru.

20 thoughts on “The Scandal of Pensioner Winter Deaths

  1. It is a SCANDAL Chris and ‘Our Government’ is on it 100% (NOT) SEE:

    Welsh Government has subcontracted Fuel Poverty Issues to the British Gas and have a Department of Essential Bilinguals to oversee the initiative.

    Met few of them and not that long ago who kept telling me they do an important job and being Bilingual can talk with anyone in Wales.

    My impression was that Fuel Poverty and its implications are low on their priorities!?

    Jacques Protic

  2. Fuel poverty and avoidable winter deaths are primarily caused by the government’s CO2 mitigation policies – endorsed by the NGOs funded variously by the EU and the shadowy unaccountable Green Blob – and all based upon totally discredited science. They are aggravated by a failed energy policy which relies upon unaffordable work-arounds like the STOR project to cover peak demands in winter. This is still the UK government’s fault at the end of the day.

    We should not be operating ‘schemes’ to try and minimise these problems we should be removing the problem at source.

    At some point there is going to have to be an inquiry into how much of this climate so-called science is ‘mistaken’ and how much is malfeasance? This will obviously require regime change but in the meantime the UK’s Climate Change Act (endorsed by the Conservatives, Labour, Lib-Dems and Green Party) is killing people for absolutely no valid reason. I really don’t see the difference between this and negligent corporate manslaughter.

  3. Our treatment of the elderly in general may be the single greatest scandal of contemporary ‘civilisation.’

  4. Absolutely agree. It is a complete scandal. The fundamental point is elderly people have so much to give and have a vast store of experience. They deserve better than this.

  5. Ah finally we have it according to Glasnost uk! Fuel poverty the fault of Welsh speakers. Its bigot time on the iwa website. ..

  6. Dave Rodwy,

    I have been called a lot worse than said or implied a Bigot Label and you are entitled to your views, but let’s look at the fact and ask yourself what’s the Welsh Government’s most damaging, divisive, discriminatory and a corrosive policy IMPOSED upon the ‘Welsh Nation since its formation of 15 years ago – (Answer: The Welsh Language)!?

    Back to the Fuel Poverty and the old people and then perhaps you can explain to me how on earth any responsible Government can subcontract this very issue to the British Gas and rely on their benevolence to help poor old folk in time of need?

    I take nothing back and I have met this so called ‘Fuel Poverty’ Welsh Civil Servants that in my view would never get the a job in any organisation that values competence and excellence within their staff recruiting policies.

    I’m not saying that Welsh speakers are not good enough for public employment as over the years I have met some highly capable Welsh speakers in prominent English Academia jobs, English Education and in the International Commercial World too…

    We all know that the highly literate Welsh speakers only form at best circa 10% of Welsh population and with number of them working in challenging careers outside of Wales, Wales is left with a smaller number of perhaps less capable people but these people unquestionably dominate the Welsh public employment sector and again in my view to the detriment of Wales!

  7. I’m sure mr protic has ben called many things. My point is That while the Western mail specialises in tenuous Welsh links to any story mr protic seems to have bagged the tenuous anti Welsh link prize. I’m all for monomaniacal single issue comments as they’re a much needed reminder of what intelligent debate is up against.

  8. Glasnost: utter rubbish. Welsh speakers are a tiny, largely powerless minority in the Welsh government civil service and not much more important in the public sector at large. Only in Gwynedd and the BBC is speaking Welsh any advantage in employment. I think you have a case of (mild?) paranoia. The best cure: learn Welsh. When you look at it from that side of the fence it will seem very different to you’ You will see not power and influence but marginalisation and decline.

  9. glasnost uk writes “I’m not saying that Welsh speakers are not good enough for public employment” – how magnanimous of him. im sure some of his best friends are welsh speakers too!

    quite why a blog hosted by a body – the iwa – which among other things is dedicated to the cultural well being of wales permits the same poster to repeatedly make ignorant ill informed attacks on a major part of welsh culture (the welsh language) is difficult to fathom. save for absurdly blaming the welsh language for all wales contemporary ills this poster appears to have nothing to contribute to welsh political discourse.

    free speech is all very well – but hate speech most certainly isnt.

  10. “We now need to focus on the people we haven’t reached. One particularly affected group is low income, older owner occupiers dispersed in urban, suburban and rural areas across all of Wales. Finding these people requires more up front effort.. ”

    This will take significant resources, at a time when there is little available. Targeting is important and I think one thing to look at is the role of the children/grandchildren of those elderly at risk and developing their awareness, ability and commitment to solve issues such as fuel tariff, insulation grants etc for their parents/grandparents. Leaving a hopefully much smaller number that need direct assistance.
    And given the demographic this issue and the resource implications are only going to grow. We need to develop a society where as many offspring as possible see to that the older generation’s needs are met.

  11. Glasnost UK is correct. Also, global warming has been caused by Welsh speakers. Is it now time to outlaw this decrepit tongue?

  12. Lots of ruffed feathers but nothing about the poverty stricken old people unable to afford to heat their homes, the Welsh Government’s shameless disinterest by sub-letting the responsibility to the British Gas!?

  13. “Why is society in Wales so prepared to put up with more older people dying in the winter compared to other months of the year?”

    It’s a worthwhile issue, but I don’t really think this is a fair comment. Nobody is happy with the current situation, and as you have highlighted in the article, there has been significant investment by local and national government to rectify the situation. There is obviously a long way to go, but I don’t think we can condemn Welsh society quite so quickly.

    Fuel poverty, energy policy, CO2 emissions, and the provision for human needs should not be separated out across different interest groups. It should be clear now that energy policy is not providing what we as a society would like and, dare I say, the market mechanism has a part to play in this failure. The global energy crisis should be something that unites young and old to invest thought and action into developing new solutions – piecemeal solutions aren’t likely to have the desired effect.

  14. Thank you your for responses and comments, and I agree that older people deserve better in many different aspects of public service. NEST is in fact a good scheme, and has been positive in terms of targeting resources and reaching older people in fuel poverty. The problem in my view is that the focus of energy policy over a number of years has been too much on properties and schemes at scale, and too little on hard to reach people in fuel poverty, spread across the whole country. With a little more up front effort in terms of finding those in greatest need of help, I believe we could reduce numbers of people in fuel poverty, and reduce tragic deaths of vulnerable older people who simply can’t afford to heat their homes.

  15. CapM- I agree, the role of family and community and taking greater collective responsibility as a society is a must. I would also say though that the thing about energy policy is that it is the one area where resources aren’t an issue. Billions have been and will continue to be available through ECO, European funding (ARBED), NEST, CESP and various other acronym schemes since the mid eighties. In this case, it really is about doing more hard yards on finding those in greatest need so as to make sure these resources are aimed more effectively at older and vulnerable in fuel poverty.

  16. The problem is not energy policy. The government has no obligation to make fuel cheaper than its true cost. The problem is poverty. Benefits and pensions are not devolved matters. They are set by the UK government. According to the “logic” employed by some of the contributors to this blog, the answer is to abolish the UK government.

  17. R.Tredwyn –

    Governments may not have an obligation to intervene in the market for energy, but they certainly take an interest and huge amounts of public money are spent on infrastructure, subsidies for renewable energy and a whole host of other things. This is because there is no ‘true’ cost of energy when there are so many potential sources of energy. In this context, transfers of money through benefits and pensions are unlikely to solve the long-term issues of individual and collective energy security, and that’s before looking at the long term implications of an aging society and ignoring as well the fact that pensions are already the largest single expenditure by the DWP.

    If fuel poverty is something that society wants to challenge, there is going to have to be some discussion at some point about state intervention on the supply side.

  18. Jack,
    Intervention on the supply side, OK, but it cannot be with the objective of making energy cheap enough for the poorest people in society to have what they need – not with income distribution as unequal as it is. First have a sensible energy policy, ensuring adequacy, security and limitation of carbon emissions. Then if there are people too poor to afford it, pay better pensions or benefits. If it is cheap enough for every poor person on their current incomes, the rest of us will waste excessive amounts to the detriment of the economy and the environment.

  19. R.Tredwyn –
    A very good point made about waste, but that is of course assuming that the units of energy we use continue to be derived from sources that cause damage to the environment. I guess I should be clearer about the intervention that I would like to see – support for the development of new, clean energy generation through subsidies to producers and potentially to consumers. I would agree with you that intervening to lower the price of fossil fuels would be ineffective both for the aim of lowering the cost to consumer (at least in the medium to long term) and in fulfilling commitments to lowering the use of ‘dirty’ energy generation. And it would probably impact negatively on the employment of people working in energy related industries.

    However, I don’t think that this debate about fuel poverty among the elderly has as of yet shown much recognition of what the demographic and fiscal situation is like now and will be like in the future. Pensions at their current rates are seen as unsustainable, and that’s in a political climate in which major parties continue to court the ‘grey’ vote and young people are less likely to vote. As baby boomers hit retirement, it’s going to be a huge task to get younger people to pay for the maintenance of current expenditure on older people, let alone any increase. Fuel payments, being universal, are likely to be among the first to go.

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