Child Deaths In Winter: Now Tell Me This Is A Civilised Country!

The John McDonnell Column

JMcDThe latest report from the Children’s Society, Behind Cold Doors, brings home the reality of what winter means for too many families.

This research found that 3.6 million children thought their home was too cold and 1.3 million said it had damp or mould. Two thirds of families reported that they turned their heating down because of the cost and, of these, half worried about their children becoming ill because of their home being cold.

They were right to worry because the report found that 115 extra children died in the winter of 2011/12 compared to other periods of the year. Four out of ten families, representing over three million families, said that they were likely to cut back on food to pay their heating bills. Half a million said that they were likely to take out a loan this winter simply to cover the cost of heating.

The Warm Home Discount was introduced to provide a payment of £135 from the large energy companies for low income pensioners and some vulnerable households as defined by the companies themselves. British Gas, for example, targets low income families who spend more than 10% of their income on fuel. Each energy company has a different scheme.

Working families don’t qualify under the rules of half of these discount schemes. Two thirds of children now living in poverty belong to working households. Their families do not receive the Warm Home Discount. With 3.5 million children living in poverty, and only 1.6 million children in families eligible for the additional warm home funds, it means 1.9 million children living in poverty miss out on the extra support they need to keep warm.

There is no excuse for any child going to bed cold and waking up to a cold home in this country. But they do, and here are the reasons why.

  • Too many of these children live in households where there is no work, and where the financial support the family receives from the state is too low. And if the adults in the family are in work, their wages are too low to heat their homes.
  • Too many families do not have a decent roof over their heads and live in properties that are cold, uninsulated and thermally so inefficient that they are costly and unsustainable.
  • Energy prices are set with the objective of maximising the dividends for the privatised company’s shareholders rather than providing affordable energy.

There are readily available solutions to each of these. They were brought together under the Green New Deal.

The first is the introduction of a living wage and living benefits linked to a programme of investment in our public services and in manufacturing that will provide the jobs we need. Many of the jobs would flow from the launch of a mass house building programme to provide decent, insulated, warm and affordable homes. By bringing energy back under public ownership and democratic control, we would be able to control prices and provide large scale employment in the construction of an energy supply system based upon renewable energy.

There has been talk from Ed Miliband and Chuka Umunna about encouraging employers to pay the living wage by offering companies tax incentives, but this is little more than the subsidising of low paying employers that we see under tax credits.

The living wage will only be achieved by workers organising to demand it. Chris Ford and Alberto Durango of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) are demonstrating with the cleaners’ campaign in London how to organise, mobilise and win this type of fight among low paid and exploited workers. Having won their campaign with the City of London Corporation, over the next few weeks they are taking on the Royal Opera House.

IWGB_BWAnother group of workers notoriously poorly paid and treated badly are fast food workers. Working with the Bakers union I have launched a Fast Food Rights campaign, modelled on the IWGB campaign. The aim is to recruit into union membership the workers in the major fast food chains.

We have called a day of action on Saturday February 15, when we aim to campaign along Oxford Street in London to call for a living wage for all fast food workers and for proper employment conditions and union recognition. The aim is to spread the campaign across the whole country.

» Support the Fast Food Rights campaign and join us on February 15 Day of Action. You can get further details of the campaign on

Twitter: @FastfoodRights
Facebook page: Fast Food Rights

John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and of the Labour Representation Committee.

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