The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that people are 14 times more likely to spend the winter fuel allowance on fuel than they would be if their incomes were increased in other ways. If an allowance is given specifically to spend on fuel, people are more likely to spend it on fuel; they would be less likely spend an allowance on fuel if it was not designated as a fuel poverty measure. There are strong arguments—for reasons that hon. Members and I have outlined—for retaining the universal payment of a winter fuel payment at current levels, and for indexing payments to the rising cost of energy. Some have argued that at a time of pressing demands on the Treasury and given the state of the economy, that would be a luxury we can ill afford. As I have indicated, money has been found for the priorities that the Government have deemed essential: the protection of international aid budgets, taking a penny off fuel duty, ring-fencing NHS budgets and so on. It is vital, however, that we also prioritise saving the lives of our senior citizens in times of very cold weather.
The chief medical officer has said that the annual cost to the NHS of treating winter-related diseases resulting from cold private housing is estimated at about £860 million, but that does not include additional spending by social services, economic loss through days off sick, and so on, which means that the total cost to the NHS and the country as a whole is unknown. However, we do know that every £1 invested in keeping homes warm saves the NHS 42p in health costs, so again this money would be well spent, and it could save the NHS more money in the long term.
Levels of fuel poverty in this country are staggering: in England, 18% of households are in fuel poverty; in Wales, it is 26%; in Scotland, it is 33%; and in Northern Ireland, it is 44%. It is right across the board. That equates to 302,000 households in Northern Ireland alone, 75,000 of which are in extreme fuel poverty, which means that they spend 20% or more of their income on fuel. Furthermore, almost half of all fuel-poor households in the country are headed by over-65s, so clearly fuel poverty disproportionately affects the elderly to a staggering degree.
Yet the situation will only get worse. I have highlighted the rising cost of fuel. In the past five years to October 2011, the retail price of gas in the UK rose by 52%, and the price of oil rose by 86%. In Northern Ireland, the situation is much worse. The price of home heating oil, which is a product that we depend on, has risen by 63% in the past two years and by 150% since 2003. Almost 70% of homes in Northern Ireland depend on it for their primary source of heating—that figure is 82% in rural areas—yet the price of oil has risen beyond anyone’s imagination.