Winter warmth

by Dr. Ros Altmann

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Two weeks ago we were basking in record October temperatures. Along with millions of others, I was enjoying the Indian Summer. It was fabulous. As I saw the sun shining in the morning I switched off the central heating for the day - and, of course, with fuel prices as high as they are, that was a great feeling!

The warmth makes you happy, but as I looked out of my window I realized not everyone can benefit as much. The older we are, the more we feel the cold. Some neighbours of mine - a couple in their 80s, walked by - dressed for October with their hats, coats and scarves. It may have been 70 degrees, and I was in my summer dress but, for them, even a slight fall in temperature from walking through the shadow of a tree or building can cause a chill.

Now, as I write this, the temperature has plummeted, the rain is horizontal, autumn has truly arrived and now I'm going out wrapped up ready for the worst of British weather.

But imagine how my older neighbours feel now: imagine their discomfort if they were walking out in summer clothes in today's weather. And then I imagine being INSIDE a house where the cost of heating their home means an older couple can only afford to keep one room warm. Many pensioners are unable to heat more than one room at a time. This winter, with fuel prices having risen so much, more and more of them will be at risk of ending up in hospital as a result of the cold.

So, when I heard that David Cameron and Chris Huhne were holding an emergency meeting to discuss the problem of rising energy bills, I was very pleased. They expressed concern that home heating costs have shown an increase of £100 for the average household since the summer. The politicians were demanding that the energy companies take action to help ordinary families suffering from these price rises. A great idea, people said. But it is not just the energy companies who are at fault here. It is the Government itself.

I have had so many letters from pensioners who are furious that the Government is just about to cut the pensioner winter fuel payments. In fact, it is cutting their payments by £100 this winter - just at the time when they complain that average fuel bills have risen by that very amount! Do they not see the irony? One week they call in the energy companies to find ways to help families manage their fuel costs and the next week they reduce the amount they give to pensioners struggling with their heating bills over the winter.

Policymakers must not ignore the needs of the most vulnerable pensioners. It is no use telling the over 80s to shop around for better deals on their heating costs either. The best prices are only available on-line. There are many pensioners who use the internet, but what about the rest? And, of course, we've heard a great deal of late about the energy companies not informing telephone-contact customers of the best deals either.

Ministers must do more to ensure energy suppliers help older people get good deals. They must also insist that older householders do not have their supplies cut off this winter if they cannot afford their bills.

And what about the Winter Fuel Payments? This year, instead of getting the £400 they have received in past years, over-80s will receive only £300. Pensioners under 80 will see their payments cut by £50 to £200; and with soaring inflation, many older pensioners are already in fuel poverty anyway. Is this the right time to be cutting these payments?

Policymakers seem to be consistently ignoring the needs of older people as spending cuts bite and the costs of basics such as heating and eating are spiralling. How much longer will older people quietly accept what is happening?

With soaring inflation this month - the highest rate for 20 years - and the prices of food and energy being worse than other items, those living on fixed incomes or who spend most of their money on the basic essentials are really being squeezed. The decision to cut Winter Fuel Payments could not have come at a worse time. I hope Ministers will recognize the dangers and help to address them before the worst of the weather is upon us.


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