Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Monday, 6 October 2008 14:04 UK

Government facing fuel court case

Mary Phillips, 72, protesting against fuel poverty
Mary Phillips, 72, staged a protest outside the High Court

Two charities are taking the government to court because they say not enough is being done to tackle high energy bills.

An act passed eight years ago means the government must take measures in England to end fuel poverty by 2016 and for vulnerable groups by 2010.

Help the Aged and Friends of the Earth want a High Court judicial review which they hope will lead to a judge ordering the government to meet its commitment.

An estimated five million homes in the UK are currently in fuel poverty.

Fuel poverty is classed as when an individual spends at least 10% of their income on gas and electricity.

The legal action by the charities comes as energy regulator Ofgem published the findings of a major inquiry into gas and electricity prices.

Extra deaths

BBC social affairs correspondent Sue Littlemore says it is widely accepted that the government is expected to miss its own targets on cutting fuel poverty.

Help the Aged and Friends of the Earth are arguing that the government is breaking the law by not doing everything reasonable to ease the problem.

At the moment, most homes in the UK are simply leaking heat
Andy Atkins
Friends of the Earth

Michael Fordham QC, appearing for the campaigners, told the court that fuel poverty was "a blight upon society" which made a significant contribution to the 20,000 to 40,000 additional deaths in the UK each winter.

Despite this, he said, ministers had downgraded fuel poverty to "minor status" within their list of objectives.

But in written statements to the court, lawyers representing the government insisted that tackling fuel poverty was a priority.

"However, in recent years, dramatic increases in energy prices, a phenomenon which is outside the government's direct control, have caused a significant rise in numbers of households in fuel poverty, notwithstanding the measures taken to implement the strategy," they said.

In a survey of 1,024 retired people conducted for the two charities, 73% said the government was not doing enough to help people with the rising cost of fuel bills.

New strategy call

As the hearing began, 72-year-old Mary Phillips, from East Dulwich, south London, staged a protest outside.

She sat on a sofa in a specially-created "living room", wearing boots and a dressing gown and clutching a hot water bottle.

Friends of the Earth's executive director, Andy Atkins, said: "The government is letting people down by failing on its legal commitment to end the suffering of fuel poverty.

I don't think the government has actually got the measure of what this crisis really is
Mervyn Kohler, Help The Aged

"At the moment, most homes in the UK are simply leaking heat - to solve fuel poverty in the long term, a massive energy efficiency programme is needed.

"This will keep people warm, cut bills and help meet our targets for tackling climate change."

Help The Aged special adviser Mervyn Kohler said the government's annual reports showed that the number of those in fuel poverty had gone up over the past three years.

"We need a new fuel poverty strategy from the government," he said.

"We need it to be much more vigorous and much faster in impacting than it is planned to do at the moment.

"We have got to try to help people who are really in a crisis situation. I don't think the government has actually got the measure of what this crisis really is."

Fuel poverty 'will rise further'
31 Jul 08 |  Scotland

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