To heat or to eat? Britain in court on fuel poverty

Tue Oct 7, 2008 10:44am EDT
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By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - Mary Phillips, a 72-year-old British pensioner, says she often escapes the cold of her council flat and the dread of unaffordable fuel bills by taking refuge in her centrally-heated local library.

But this week, she took her sofa to the streets outside the High Court to try to force the British government to do more for people like her who are being forced into an often fatal choice between heating and eating.

Wearing fluffy boots, wrapped in blankets and a dressing gown, and clutching a hot water bottle to her chest, she posed as a symbol of the some 25,000 elderly people who will die of the cold in Britain this winter.

Data collated by a lobby group, National Energy Action, show that despite a relatively mild climate, 19 percent more people in England die in winter than in other seasons, compared with 10 percent in Finland, 11 percent in Germany and 12 percent in Denmark.

"Fuel poverty" -- a phenomenon that has crept into the lower income brackets of British society in recent years -- is now at the top of the political agenda, with energy prices soaring and incomes under pressure as the economy buckles under the credit crunch.

Charities say 5 million people in Britain will struggle to heat their homes this winter, and this week they took the government to the High Court to explain why it is not doing more to help them.


A household in "fuel poverty" is defined as one that spends 10 percent or more of its annual income on gas and electricity, and the government has promised to do everything "reasonably practicable" to end it in vulnerable households by 2010.   Continued...