The topics of energy prices, fuel poverty and the big six energy companies have filled newspaper headlines for weeks so it may come as no surprise that today hundreds of people have gathered in Central London, Oxford and Bristol for the ‘Bring the Big Six! Fuel Poverty Kills’ protest. Protesters, including groups Fuel Poverty Action, UK Uncut, Disabled People Against Cuts and the Greater London Pensioners’ Association will target NPower in London, whilst British Gas will be the focus in Oxford.
But why protest today? And what is the protest about? And what alternatives to our expensive energy system will protesters be suggesting?
Today, the numbers of ‘excess winter deaths’ have been announced by the Office of National Statistics and the World Health Organisation estimates that at least 30 per cent of these ‘excess’ deaths from winter time can be attributed to fuel poverty. That means that in the winter 2011/2012 at least 7,000 people died in the UK from living in cold homes, with the figures higher for the winter 2012/2013. Therefore it is an important day to demand an end to our current unfair energy system that, quite literally, puts profit before people’s lives.
The figures are shocking and demands instant action, but for the true context of the depth of the problem of fuel poverty it is worth considering the issue more widely. Polls consistently show that one in four families regularly make the choice between heating their homes or eating, and it is women who are most likely to give up their meal to keep their children warm. The Guardian newspaper recently reported that people have started returning food to foodbanks because they simply can’t afford to heat it up, or put their gas on. Many people reading this will know the reality of cold homes, debt to energy companies and life on a prepayment meter, but for those who don’t I would recommend reading the ‘speak out’ page of our website, where people share those experiences.
And let’s remember that alongside this hardship the big six energy companies reported retail profits of £3.7bn last year, with many of them reporting huge profit increases. Between them, their CEOs took home millions of pounds in bonuses alone. They rarely ever mention these profits or the ever increasing price of fossil fuels like gas, when challenged on price increases, but instead blame ‘green levies’ – much of which is actually spent on home insulation for those on low incomes – and government policies for the price hikes.
Protestors therefore will be visiting the doors of the big six to highlight their profiteering at the cost of lives, but we will not be demanding concessions from them – we will be demanding complete change.
It is clear that our energy system doesn’t work for us, it works for big business and today we are saying enough is enough. Keeping warm, being able to eat hot food, or even having a right to not have your home broken into so that an energy companies can install a prepayment meter against your will, are not big asks in twenty first century Britain. Instead we need an energy system that is owned publicly, and by communities where possible (look at the achievements of Brixton Energy Coop, a renewable energy project whose financial revenues stay within the local community) and is not-for-profit.
We also need to move away from our dependency on pricey fossil fuels. Renewable energy infrastructure can create incredibly cheap domestic energy for decades, meaning we are now longer at the sharp-end of price shocks from the international fossil fuel market. It is also worth remembering that about 50 per cent of our bill currently just pays for the wholesale cost of the fossil fuel: fossil fuels are certainly not cheap (even after the billions of pounds of government subsidies the industry receives every year), and they are certainly not good for the climate.
Protestors today will be demanding a fair, sustainable, affordable energy future for everyone and an end to deaths from fuel poverty, instead of a system that puts profits before people’s needs.
Clare Welton works at Fuel Poverty Action. They tweet @fuelpovaction