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  March 5, 2013

The fatal choice between food or heating in Modern Britain

Senior Citizens and Disabled people say they're being abandoned by society. Thousands are left to die in cold homes every year in the UK, while energy companies threaten to raise cost of heating further
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HASSAN GHANI, TRNN CORRESPONDENT: Winters in the UK can be bitterly cold. In an economy where the cost of living is going up while average incomes are staying the same, a growing number of people are having to choose between food and heating. One recent survey found that up to 1 in 4 families in Britain was turning down the heating during the winter to be able to pay other bills. The cost of gas and electricity for consumers has more than doubled since 2004, and the energy industry is warning that heating bills are going to get even bigger in coming years.

The basic problem, say energy companies, is that there simply isn't enough capacity anymore, because they're having having to close down some of their older coal and oil power stations in order to meet green energy targets. They're now building a series of natural gas power stations in order to bridge the gap. The bottom line is that energy companies are going to raise their prices even further, and they're blaming it on the rising cost of wholesale gas and investment in renewable energy.

But more and more consumers are growing wise to the fact that the energy companies themselves are making vast and growing profits, despite their claims of simply passing on price rises. British Gas, for example, saw an 11 percent increase in profits last year. It's managing director, who's tom moving on, will leave with a $15 million departure package. And there's very little transparency in the way the big energy companies buy their fuel, which is purchased in advance. An investigation is now underway into allegations of price-fixing by the power companies.

Ultimately, the rise in household bills is having a devastating effect on the most vulnerable members of society.

EWA JASIEWICZ, FUEL POVERTY ACTION: The people who are most affected by this are the disabled, elderly people, also asylum seekers and refugees who are in poor housing, students, basically anyone who's hard up. And quite frankly, with all of the austerity cuts that we are having to deal with in this country, that means everybody. It means the 99 percent.

GHANI: At this protest outside the offices of the government's Department for Energy and Climate Change, some of the strongest voices of objection came from disabled people. Sharon had a well-paid job in logistics until three years ago when she became disabled. Today, she struggles to heat her home and feels excluded from society.

SHARON, DISABLED PEOPLE AGAINST CUTS: Somebody like myself, I live with pain 24/7. If I'm cold, I'm in more pain, so I have to have that heat. The government's only looking at profits, making cuts from benefits to the most poorest people. Then, obviously, the fuel is going up, and they're expecting to pay with the little that we have.

Those who have the authority to change this country are not doing so. These are big companies. They have a responsibility. And I'm asking them now, today, to change, and have that responsibility, and look at the average person on the street and think, can they pay their bills?

GHANI: Another group in society who aren't often heard, because they don't like to complain, but are perhaps the most seriously affected by unaffordable heating costs are senior citizens. There were an estimated 26,000 excess winter deaths across the U.K. last winter. Most of the deceased were pensioners, many of them afraid of turning up the heating and facing enormous bills on their meagre incomes. The level of excess winter deaths here is much higher than even Scandinavian countries, who experience colder temperatures than the U.K. but have better-insulated homes.

Ninety-one year old Lily Kennedy lives on the West Coast of Scotland and has been campaigning for pensioners' rights for decades. She warns of growing resentment amongst her peers, who feel they're being abandoned by the government despite having paid into the national insurance system all their lives.

LILY KENNEDY, SENIORS FORUM: This government insult our intelligence. And I'm being very polite. Going back to the First World War, they had what they called soup kitchens. This the 21st century, and we are now creating more soup kitchens. And that says it all, Hassan. That is how bad the situation is within the U.K.

GHANI: Last year on the Real News, we reported on the growth of food banks across the U.K., where more and more communities are providing basic foodstuffs free of charge to help those in desperate need keep their head above water. The recession, inflation, and the government's austerity measures have driven some of the nation's poorest and most vulnerable to depend on charity. Pensioners are among them, but many senior citizens are too proud to ask for help, and the impossible choice of paying for either food or heating can have tragic results.

FIONA MALCOLM, SENIORS FORUM: When you get older there's arthritis problems, there are medical problems, health problems. Where they do, they feel cold more, so you have to keep warmer. They'll cut back on food to maybe put it in the heating, or they might do the reverse, so they're sitting with a big wooly jumper on and a blanket, keeping the heating off, so that they can have that extra bit of food.

But unfortunately not all pensioners are able physically or mentally to think like that, because unfortunately there's such a thing as illness, like dementia and other serious illnesses like that, Parkinson's, where they're not able to cope. And that's when things really become quite tragic. I mean, you've seen it on the television, there've been people have gone into houses where the old body's been found dead, and nobody knew that the person had died, and they'd been there for weeks, you know, and the place is freezing cold. And you think, well, you know, is it any wonder?

KENNEDY: There have been deaths through hypothermia. There will be more. I'm not a pessimistic person, but there's a terrible, terrible feeling amongst people at the present time. They are afraid. They really are afraid. They are frightened at the way the government are dealing specifically with senior citizens.

You know, when I think back to the war years, and I think back to--Fiona fought for our country, my husband fought for this country, and I say to myself, what did we do that for? Where is the benefit? Because I don't know what's happening, I can't put my finger on it, but I do know and feel that what is happening is wrong.

GHANI: Lily and her younger friend Fiona consider themselves relatively financially comfortable as pensioners, but have made it their mission in life to speak out for others in more dire circumstances who don't have the resources to campaign.

MALCOLM: They deserve to at least see out their latter life with dignity and a decent standard of living.

GHANI: The government does provide a winter fuel allowance to pensioners, and energy companies are obliged to provide a cheaper tariff to those in fuel poverty. But the fuel allowance has actually been reduced, and Lily says getting onto the cheapest tariff is difficult.

KENNEDY: I do blame the government, because there's such a thing as a regulator, and they are not regulating. So it's hitting us very, very hard. But you're not going to tell me the government are not getting their coinage out of that lot, because they are.

GHANI: Campaigners want the government to invest some of the billions of pounds it will receive in the coming years from carbon tax revenues into making homes more energy efficient, reducing bills and carbon emissions in the long term. So far, the government seems to have done the opposite, actually slashing the budget for energy efficiency measures for those in fuel poverty.

Some activists have even accused the government of colluding with the U.K.'s big six energy companies in what they call a dash for gas.

JASIEWICZ: Some staff from the big six energy companies have actually been working in the Department for Energy and Climate Change helping to write policy, and that policy is reflecting their interests and not public interest, which is actually to go for green, renewable, sustainable, clean, and cheap energy.

GHANI: Eva was among 21 activists who climbed the chimneys of one of the new gas power plants in England, owned by the French energy giant EDF, in November last year. Their protest against building new, expensive fossil-fuelled power plants shut down operations at the site for a week.

But now EDF, which norrmally likes to paint itself as being on the side of the little guy, is suing the young activists for $7.5 million in damages.

The lawsuit looks like it might completely backfire. Some customers are already deserting the energy supplier, and tens of thousands have signed a petition against the lawsuit in the space of a week.

JASIEWICZ: We're being divided, we're being crushed, basically, by these austerity cuts, by this government and its capitalist ethos. And if it wasn't this government, it would be a different one as well. I think the only solution is a kind of bottom-up, people-led reorganization of our society along the lines of human needs and not corporate profits.

GHANI: If nothing changes, charities are warning that more households will be plunged into fuel poverty in the coming years. Modern Britain considers itself a civilized and relatively prosperous nation, even in the midst of a recession. Is it acceptable, then, that every year thousands of its senior citizens are left to die in their cold homes, having lived in fear of being unable to pay their bills?

Hassan Ghani for The Real News, London.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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