Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why stupid advice about saving energy leaves me cold

Hot air: Ed Davey

This column contains no advice about reducing your energy bills – even though Energy Secretary Ed Davey reckons there are garments called 'sweaters' you can put on when you can't afford to turn on the central heating. Apparently they have two arms and a hole to put your head through. How very practical!

As millions of households face energy bills of more than £1,500 for the first time, Public Health England has issued guidelines to help us cope with cold weather – we must wear lots of thin layers, heat the living room during the day and the bedroom before going to bed. Have hot food and drinks... and consider wearing slippers.

This banal twaddle is obviously directed at the elderly, but they are the most sensible, practical and knowledgeable section of the population, the ones who struggled through the war, rationing, austerity in the '50s and who are brilliant at scrimping.

Instead of running expensive ad campaigns, and self-importantly articulating the obvious, every public health body should donate a large percentage of their budget towards installing free insulation in the homes of the eldest and the poorest. The Government should divert the money it raises from 'green' energy charges to make up the shortfall.

The other day on the radio, I heard an elderly man describe how he managed to use just £8 worth of gas a year, but was hit with a £100 standing charge – that reduced me to tears.

I hope he wrote and told Mr Davey where to shove his woollie. What none of us need from public servants and politicians is advice about how to cope. Sadly, for the last decade, we have been plagued by a stream of directives from a nanny state, few of which have had any discernible impact on our behaviour.

The five-a-day fruit and veg campaign cost £4m between 2006 and 2011, but the number of adults eating five portions a day dropped during that time from 30% to 26% – a million fewer healthy eaters. A study of half a million Europeans found that eating fruit and veg had little impact on reducing cancer.

Then we've had all the directives about exercise – expensive campaigns urging us to walk regularly and get fitter in the process. Walking – that activity where you put one foot in front of the other, in case you didn't know. Last August a study found that 80% of us were not achieving these targets and a whopping 10% hadn't even managed to walk five minutes without stopping in the previous month.

Now, there's a new debate about how much exercise we really need to be fit. Last week, another quango, Nice, declared that parents of fat children should set an example by eating healthier and exercising. As if a teenager would do anything mum and dad favoured.

All this goes to prove that governments should stay well away from telling us how to behave, because it wastes public funds.

Summoning the energy firms to parliament for a public dressing down will achieve nothing either. Ofgem is supposed to act for the consumer but it's a toothless watchdog. Just scrap it.

To cut bills, we need to shop around and swap suppliers – and civil servants should be dreaming up ways of visiting the elderly at home (who may not be online) and helping them do just that. We moaned about banking – but 90% of us never switch banks. Old habits die hard.

Simple tariffs will be introduced later this year – will the 40% of us who have never switched energy supplier be prepared to do so? That will achieve more than popping on a pullover.

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