The NHS must do “much better” at preventing flu outbreaks, energy secretary Ed Davey said as he insisted badly insulated homes were only one factor behind the “disgrace” of high winter deaths.
“Excess winter deaths” in England and Wales soared 29% last year to 31,000, with 1,582 people dying every single day during the coldest March in decades.
But Mr Davey told MPs that helping keep down energy bills and making houses more efficient was by no means the only action government needed to take.
“It is a disgrace but we need to understand why that has been caused,” he said - pointing to a “very dangerous combination” of a long and severe worldwide bout of flu plus a very late cold spell.
“Yes we need to insulate people’s homes more, yes we have to help them with their bills but we also have to work with others, particularly the Department of Health, to ensure we have, for example, a much better record on ensuring people get flu jabs.”
Mr Davey said reductions to environmental levies on energy firms unveiled yesterday in a bid to shave an average £50 off recent rises in household fuel bills would not curb efforts to tackle fuel poverty.
Indeed parts of the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) which tackled the issue “have not been cut at all” and instead extended by two years, he told the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee.
He also revealed that there would be a further measure announced in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement on Thursday to fully offset the increased emissions expected from the bills move.
CO2 emissions are expected to jump by 2.7-2.9 megatonnes as a result of David Cameron’s move to “roll back” the levies - with cash for homebuyers to make improvements designed to save 1.8 megatonnes and public sector efficiency measures 0.6 megatonnes.
“There is an announcement in the Autumn Statement, which I can’t yet share with you for obvious reasons, which will save a further amount of carbon,” Mr Davey said.
Liberal Democrats had made “absolutely clear” to their Tory coalition partners that any efforts to help reduce bills had to be carbon neutral.
He accepted average bills would still rise by an average £70 despite the changes - aimed at wresting back the political initiative on the cost of living from Labour, which has promised a 20-month bill freeze.
But he said people could still reduce their bills altogether by switching suppliers to take advantage of “some very attractive deals in the market”.
Mr Davey also rejected “very ill-informed” criticism by another Commons committee of a planned change to the official definition of fuel poverty.
The government was accused by the environmental audit committee of “shifting the goalposts” to bring down the number of households in the category.
Amendments to the Energy Bill would change definitions so that 2.4 million are classed as fuel poor rather than 3.2 million.
A report from the Commons pointed out that currently families fall into the category if they spend more than 10% of income on fuel “to maintain an adequate level of warmth”.
But the new indicator would mean they were only regarded as in hardship if they have “above average fuel costs” that would leave them with “a residual income below the official poverty line”.
Mr Davey said the existing definition was so flawed that one year it would have included the Queen among the country’s fuel poor.
Three years’ work had gone into a more accurate measure that would “enable fuel poverty to be addressed in a far more effective way”, he said.
Both figures would initially be published side by side, he indicate
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