Warm Words, but no Action

30,000 old people are dying of cold each year, and the Government does nothing

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, sometime in 1997.

The extra £300 million that the government is about to pour into the National Health Service is a waste of money. That the NHS desperately needs more cash is incontrovertible, and that demand for hospital care, and hence for funds, will rise this winter is equally undeniable. But the money the government has scraped together in the hope of averting yet another impending crisis is the worst kind of health provision, binding the wounds inflicted on preventative care with the ragged bandage of therapy. Presented as further evidence of New Labour’s compassionate policies, it reflects both a failure of compassion and an absence of policy.

Perhaps the principal cause of the rise in hospital admissions every winter is a hard and, in this prosperous nation, utterly unacceptable fact of life: hundreds of thousands of frail and impoverished people, particularly the elderly, are living in homes which are simply unfit for human habitation. Every winter around 30,000 British people die of cold, and the main reason is that their houses are either falling apart or have never been adequately put together. Fifty per cent of British homes can’t meet minimum energy efficiency standards; one in five is beyond hope. Neglected for twenty years, the damage would now cost £80 billion to repair.

We’ve heard all this before. I’ve used this page to lament these deficiencies myself, but that was in the Era of Callous Neglect. Today, of course, we live in the Age of Being a Beacon to the World. Yet, far from seriously addressing perhaps the cruellest, certainly the most lethal, crisis of social provision in the United Kingdom, Mr Blair’s government is, just like its predecessor, warming the hearts of the nation with little more than words.

The government knows there is a problem, and it knows too that something urgent needs to be done about it, but its measures are at best inadequate, at worst regressive. This year, £75 million has been allocated to the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, £3 million more than last year. Ministers have been talking about using the Welfare to Work scheme’s new Environment Task Force to fill the gap, but there’s not a lot it can do, as the most important works demand a skilled and dedicated labour force. Releasing local authorities’ capital receipts will help, but the government has recommended that they spend no more than 15 per cent of them on home improvements. The last budget sensibly reduced VAT on home heating, but maintained the full and punitive rate of tax on energy-saving materials. It will, as a result, do nothing to help people prevent their precious warmth from pouring through the window.

Perhaps the most equitable means of mobilising some of the resources needed – forcing the electricity and gas companies to plough back part of the voluptuous profits our inefficient homes provide for them – has been forestalled. The windfall tax sent an unmistakable signal to the utilities: that most of their social obligations were, thenceforward, terminated. The Treasury says it has no further plans to make them share their good fortune with their customers.

In the absence of significant measures, all the government can do is cobble together an emergency funding package, so that it won’t be exposed to the embarrassment of even more old people dying of neglect this year than died during the cold snap last year. The NHS will confront the same crisis next year and for ever after, unless the government decides to treat this social illness as a chronic, rather than acute one.

Attending to the causes, not just the symptoms of this disease would help the government not only to meet the future requirements of the NHS, but also to approach its admirable and optimistic target for reducing the country’s emissions of carbon dioxide. It’s hard to see how it can even begin to discharge its commitment to cutting carbon emissions by 20 per cent in twelve years if it doesn’t help us to keep the home fires burning low.

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told us that he did not want to inhabit a country “where people who fought to keep that country free are now faced every winter with the struggle for survival, skimping and saving, cold and alone, waiting for death to take them.” These are warm words for a cold nation, Mr Blair, but what on earth are you going to do about it?