Page last updated at 09:45 GMT, Saturday, 10 January 2009

Warning of fuel poverty failure

Gas flame
Age Concern says the government has not been doing enough to help

The government has been accused of failing to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from high energy bills.

The criticism by Age Concern and fuel charity National Energy Action comes as the UK has been experiencing some of its coldest weather in years.

Bills have gone up by an average of 40% since January last year, and prices are unlikely to fall until the autumn.

The government says it has already increased cold weather payments and winter fuel payments for pensioners.

But, Age Concern said the government is failing to meet its own targets for ending fuel poverty.

'Shameful'

Charity spokesman Patrick South said the government was not helping enough people move out of fuel poverty - where more than 10% of income is spent on gas and electricity.

He said: "The government is clearly failing in its responsibility to protect the poorest and most vulnerable customers.

"Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, has said that it's shameful that the UK has such high levels of fuel poverty, but so far we've not seen any firm action from the government to back those kind of statements up."

In the end, we have to remember they [energy companies] are businesses, they are not your friends
Roman Kazmin, energy analyst

National Energy Action (NEA) said the impact of soaring fuel bills was also being felt by those with young children and disabled people.

Jenny Saunders, chief executive of NEA told the BBC: "For those who are very vulnerable - older people, families with young children - they are feeling this cold weather particularly hard and their energy bills have gone up since last January by an average of 360.

"We recommend the winter fuel payment be extended to the 1.6m families with children, or where there is a member of the family disabled."

Consumer advocacy group Consumer Focus said it was crucial to improve the energy efficiency of the nations homes in order to reduce people's reliance on fuel companies.

Row over bills

Jonathan Stearn of Consumer Focus told the BBC: "In Sweden this idea of fuel poverty doesn't exist, they don't know about it because their homes are energy efficient."

He also recommended winter fuel payments should not just be available to the elderly and that the payments should be paid as a lump sum.

The government has told energy companies it expects them to pass any price cuts on to all customers.

NEA RECOMMENDATIONS
Mandatory social tariff available for poorest customers
Extension of winter payments to families with young children and disabled family members
Immediate tackling of price differential between pre-payment and online billing customers
Increased budgets for energy-efficiency scheme grants

Energy Minister Mike O'Brien told the BBC: "Our message to the energy companies in a series of meetings we've had with them has been very clear: we expect them to get down their prices."

The Russian gas crisis has pushed wholesale gas prices higher and analysts say that means it will take longer for the consumers' prices to fall.

The EU depends on Russia for about a quarter of its total gas supplies, some 80% of which are pumped via Ukraine.

Russia cut gas to Ukraine itself a week ago as the row over pricing and allegedly unpaid bills escalated.

Ukraine denies Russian accusations that it is stealing gas passing through export pipelines on its territory.

Energy companies have denied they are profiteering from the crisis which has seen gas exported from the UK to Europe amid rising prices.

The Energy Retail Association said it believes suppliers will reduce prices as soon as they can.

But energy analyst Roman Kazmin told the BBC: "In the end, we have to remember they are businesses, they are not your friends.

"So any pressure on reduction of prices will have to come from the consumers and the government."



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