Energy companies increased dividends 19% last year
The "big six" energy suppliers increased their shareholder dividend payouts by 19% last year, according to new research.
The suppliers paid £1.64bn in dividends in 2007, £257m more than the year before, a study commissioned by the Local Government Association found.
The news comes shortly after Gordon Brown said there would be no one-off fuel payment to help poorer households.
Instead, ministers are likely to focus on new energy-efficiency measures.
The research found that Centrica upped its payout to shareholders to £478m from £409m in 2006 while EDF increased its dividend from £105m to £110m.
Meanwhile, Scottish and Southern Energy's dividend rose to £474m from £400m and RWE Npower saw a jump from £37m to £250m.
E.ON paid £240m worth of dividends in 2007, after paying nothing in 2006.
Scottish Power was the only supplier to buck the trend, cutting its dividend from £427m to £83m.
LGA's acting chairman, Sir Jeremy Beecham, said the figures showed that energy companies were not necessarily guarding profits to invest in new future technology.
"This research torpedoes the energy companies' justification for their profits," he said.
But the Energy Retail Association - which represents the big suppliers - said that companies were at liberty to decide their dividends and that shareholder payouts did not affect investment plans.
"This payment to shareholders is not an alternative to the commitment by energy companies to invest tens of billions of pounds in Britain's energy infrastructure," said its chief executive Garry Felgate.
"To think otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of the investment that is already being made by the industry to deliver energy security and to meet environmental targets."
The Government has come under increasing pressure from trade unions and Labour backbenchers to help poorer families deal with the rising cost of energy via a one-off tax on the profits of utility companies.
Thus far, Chancellor Alistair Darling has resisted the calls, saying this would make the market less competitive.
Despite its research, the LGA has agreed, saying that a push by energy companies to finance a £500m national home insulation programme over the next five years would be more effective.
But Tony Woodley, joint leader of the two-million strong Unite union, said the government needed to "legislate to cap prices from [those] greedy utilities so that we help the ordinary families in our country".
He added that failure to do so would be a "betrayal" to those who were struggling.
Meanwhile,a Labour backbencher, Fabian Hamilton, who has called for a windfall tax on energy companies, says the Government risks losing support if it fails to provide a one-off payment to help ease people's energy woes.