Tom Richmond: Whitehall's cold shoulder to a matter of life and death
ON behalf of those senior citizens who simply can't afford to heat their homes in order to stay warm this winter, I've been trying to find out who is taking responsibility for the issue of '˜fuel poverty' after it emerged that 24,300 vulnerable pensioners and others died prematurely from hypothermia and related conditions last winter.
Theresa May and 10 Downing Street? No. After a pause, the switchboard operator said it was probably an issue for the Department of Health. Fair enough until Jeremy Hunt’s office suggested the Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy who, in turn, said it was an issue for the Department for Communities and Local Government or that the Treasury might help.
Really? When the phone is finally answered at the DCLG, I’m advised to call back Mr Hunt’s ministry – “it’s definitely them” – while the Treasury suggested I telephone my local town hall who said it would be an issue for the housing provider. And so it went on...
I could have saved myself a lot of heartache – and time – by declaring at the outset that I was a member of the Press who wanted details on what a Government ‘for all, and not the privileged few’, was doing to help the most vulnerable.
Yet I also wanted to see how these supposed great offices responded to such inquiries from the public because it would be a more accurate barometer of whether anyone in authority was showing any leadership or responsibility on a basic issue of compassion and humanity. I was, frankly, shocked by the indifference – does anyone actually care that people will shiver to death in the coming weeks?
This is not Victorian Britain or the post-war years when families had to scrape ice off the inside of window frames during the harshest winter. This is the fifth-largest economy in the world at the dawn of the 21st century and yet there are families who will have to sacrifice a hot meal if it means keeping warm.
It’s easy for younger people to be slightly blasé about heating costs. They can wear an extra pullover or control the temperature inside their home with a mobile phone app in order to minimise usage. This is cold comfort to the housebound and immobile living on the breadline, they really do sit, suffer and shiver.
There are also knock-on consequences for the NHS. If more elderly people are hospitalised with bronchial infections and the like, this means fewer hospital beds available for day admissions. And this is before council-run social care services are placed under greater strain.
I’m sure Commons leader David Lidington was totally sincere when he responded to the latest evidence by telling MPs: “I need to point out that, partly due to the NHS’s extensive preparation... excess winter mortality last winter was down on the previous year.”
Citing the ‘Stay Well This Winter’ campaign launched by NHS England and Public Health England, two organisations not named by Whitehall’s powers-that-be, he said: “The NHS is very much alive to these risks, and is taking action to alert elderly people to what they can do to keep themselves warm.”
Really? According to York Outer MP Julian Sturdy 24 hours earlier, the campaign’s advice is to “heat your home to at least 18°C (65°F), if you can”. What if you can’t?A begging call to one of the privatised energy providers who continue to put profit before their social conscience? Talk about complacency.
If industry regulator Ofgem can’t hold them to account, what chance a little old lady on the end of a telephone?
Given that calls for energy providers to use their profits to prioritise the insulation of draughty homes occupied by pensioners most at risk of hypothermia have not been heeded, and given the power vacuum in cosy Ministerial offices across Whitehall which are well-insulated, I hope Mrs May is more decisive and more bold than her predecessors.
Just as respected Labour politician Frank Field was once asked by Tony Blair ‘to think the unthinkable’ on welfare reform before Labour backtracked on its good intentions, and just as Gordon Brown tried and failed to form a ‘government of all the talents’, she should accept Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis’s offer to investigate this issue on a similar basis.
For more than a year, he’s been holding Ministers to account and wrote a passionate piece on these pages earlier this week about his personal desire to engage “with the major energy companies, housing providers and charities to address this problem” and challenge them “to do more” to “protect our most vulnerable friends and neighbours”. He added: “If we want to save lives this winter, we need action now. And I, for one, am determined to make sure we get it.”
This is too important to be left to petty party politics or Whitehall buck-passing. According to official figures, 152,000 people have died prematurely over the past five winters because they can’t afford heating costs – that’s the population of Harrogate.
How many more deaths will it take before Theresa May picks up the phone and gives Dan Jarvis – the man who should be Labour leader – the chance to tackle, in a spirit of national unity, one of the great social scourges of these times? Unlike her colleagues, at least he will answer the call.