Let me press ahead and make a little progress, and I will take more interventions in a short while.
I want to refer to the situation in Northern Ireland. Last winter, we had the coldest December in 100 years. In 2009-10, there were almost 1,000 excess winter deaths, 80% of which were of people aged 65 or over. On average, we get 910 such deaths per year, and that figure compares with 590 in 2001-02, so there has been a massive increase over that period. We have to understand that in addition to the stark figures on mortalities, for every death from cold there are eight hospital admissions and more than 100 visits to general practitioners and health centres. This is suffering on a vast scale.
The recent interim report from the Government’s independent review of fuel poverty, conducted by John Hills, states:
“Living in cold homes has a series of effects on illness and mental health.”
I will not go into all the repercussions of cold weather and of living in cold and damp housing on people’s mental and physical health. The interim report outlines those very clearly.
The winter fuel payment was introduced in January 1998 as a tax-free annual payment. Its purpose was and is to alleviate fuel poverty by giving specific help to encourage older people to spend more on heating during the winter. What is happening this year? For the past three years, the winter fuel payment has been £250 for those aged 60 and over, and £400 for those aged 80 and over. Despite spiralling fuel prices—we had a debate only a couple of weeks ago in this House on the crisis in the energy sector—and despite the extremely cold recent winters and the forecasts of a very cold winter to come, in 2011-12 the payment for pensioners aged 60 and over has been reduced by 20% to £200, and the payment for those aged 80 and over has been cut by a quarter to £300. That does not affect just a small group of people; it affects more than 9 million households and about 13 million people throughout the United Kingdom. Some 12.7 million of those people are in Great Britain and some 317,000 are in Northern Ireland.
As a result of the changes, the expenditure on winter fuel payments will fall from approximately £2.75 billion in 2010-11 to some £2.136 billion in 2011-12. That is a substantial monetary saving for the Treasury, but at what cost? That is the question that many people are asking. People in charities or third sector organisations who deal with older people’s issues are making it clear that they fear that this cut, which directly hits the pockets and incomes of pensioner households throughout the United Kingdom, will result in more illness, more disease and more deaths.