Millions struggle to keep themselves warm, MPs say
The government is on course to fail to meet its own targets on reducing fuel poverty, a committee of MPs has warned.
Ministers aim to end fuel poverty in England among households which include the elderly, the disabled or children this year - and entirely by 2016.
But the Energy and Climate Change Committee predicts the first target will be missed - and says the second looks "increasingly difficult to hit".
The government said its energy strategy put the "focus on the most vulnerable".
Fuel poverty is defined as spending over 10% of household income on energy bills.
A report by the committee said that millions struggle to keep themselves warm, and multi-billion pound projects have not solved the problem - which has not been helped by the spiralling cost of energy.
The latest figures suggest that, in England alone, some 2.8 million households fit the government's definition of fuel poverty - with the vast majority of them classified as vulnerable because they include the elderly, the disabled or children.
It said there was a danger further increases in fuel prices could land another 2.4 million UK households in fuel poverty by 2016.
The MPs suggested that the government should consider a fixed discount on fuel for pensioners and those with serious illness.
They concluded that improving energy efficiency in homes was the most effective way to cut bills and lift people out of fuel poverty, and called for "street-by-street" programmes to install measures such as insulation.
Additionally, they said efforts to tackle fuel poverty should be more focused, including a detailed "road map" to meet the 2016 target.
Other measures suggested by the committee included setting up a database of the energy efficiency standards of all homes and focusing the Warm Front scheme, which helps vulnerable households with energy efficiency, on those who need it most.
Paddy Tipping, acting chairman of the committee, said: "One of the reasons tackling fuel poverty is so difficult is that the government does not have a clear idea about who the fuel poor are."
Energy and climate change minister David Kidney said the government's Warm Front scheme had carried out 25,000 heating or insulation jobs over the past winter to reduce fuel bills.
He added: "And as part of the energy bill currently before parliament, we'll be requiring energy companies to double their collective spend to £300m a year by 2013 on social price support, helping more of their most vulnerable customers with their energy bills."
But Friends of the Earth executive director Andy Atkin said "urgent and radical action" was needed to stop people having to choose between spending money on heating or food.
He added: "The government must introduce a comprehensive nationwide energy efficiency programme that prioritises those most at risk."
Jonathan Stearn, energy expert for Consumer Focus, said the committee's recommendation about discounts should be extended further.
"Such a simple measure would have a huge impact, covering nearly half of households living in fuel poverty and struggling to meet their bills," he said.
Fuel poverty affects communities across the country, but households in the countryside can be disproportionately affected, says BBC rural affairs correspondent Jeremy Cooke.
That is because they are off the mains gas grid, and the alternative fuels such as oil, bottled gas and electricity are more expensive.
Ruth Matthews, who lives in the village of Diddlebury in Shropshire, is registered disabled and spends more than half of her income on trying to keep warm.
She said that the government should do more to help, and that this winter she has often been cold in her own home.
"There was nothing I could do about it," she added
"I had no money, I had to put a coat on or get a blanket. There's too many old people dying from the cold because they are too scared to put the heating on."