Energy efficiency is the key to tackling fuel poverty, charities say
Fuel poverty levels could rise to a new high unless more is done to improve the energy efficiency of homes, charities have said.
A coalition of campaigners say that a government target to end fuel poverty in England by 2016 will be "impossible to meet" under the current strategy.
Someone who spends more than 10% of their household income on heating their home is defined as fuel poor.
The government says long-term investment is being put into the issue.
A group of charities and organisations, including Age Concern and Help the Aged, watchdog Consumer Focus, and various pensioner and environmental groups, have presented their wish list to government on how to deal with the issue.
It includes a call for investment of £7bn a year for seven years to make all homes of those in fuel poverty as energy efficient as newly-built homes. Some of this funding could be drawn from existing schemes.
This would create jobs and help cut CO2 emissions, the charities said, as well as cutting fuel poverty.
The charities said winter fuel payments should be extended to the terminally ill, steps should be taken to reduce household energy prices, and energy providers should provide "social price discounts" to the poorest customers.
"It should be a right, not a privilege, for everybody to have a warm, dry home that they can afford to heat," said Jonathan Stearn, of Consumer Focus.
Mike Hobday, head of campaigns at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "People tell us they feel colder due to the effects of cancer treatment, they turn the heating up and then receive higher fuel bills, often when their household income has dropped because they cannot work."
Figures on fuel poverty tend to lag behind the current situation. The number of households in fuel poverty in England last year was up sharply from just 1.2 million in 2004.
All the major energy companies have recently announced cuts in gas bills
Across the UK as a whole, the number of fuel-poor households rose from 3.5 million in 2006 to four million in 2007.
But Consumer Focus said this figure could now have risen to as high as 6.6 million, including 4.6 million in England.
The government said that long-term action was being taken.
"This winter, the Warm Front scheme has carried out 25,000 heating or insulation jobs, leading to permanently reduced fuel bills," said Energy and Climate Change Minister David Kidney.
"And our recent energy-efficiency strategy puts particular focus on the most vulnerable. It requires energy companies working with local authorities and community groups to target poorer households for house-by-house, street-by-street eco-upgrades.
"It sets minimum energy-efficiency standards for social housing, and explains how we will do the same for rented property, including through tighter regulation."
Shadow energy minister Charles Hendry said: "The government has been very good at setting targets without also setting out how they can be delivered.
"It is clear that it cannot meet its target for eradicating fuel poverty from vulnerable households by 2010 and it looks as though its target for total eradication by 2016 is heading in the same direction.
"The government still does not have a coherent strategy to avoid more misery for the millions of households struggling to pay their energy bills."
All of the major energy companies have recently announced that they are cutting their gas bills for domestic customers, by up to 8%.
However, the cuts in prices are still relatively small compared with the increases across the market in 2008.