A million households forced into fuel poverty

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The Independent Online

A million extra households have been pushed into fuel poverty in the space of only a year as rising prices cripple family budgets.

The rise leaves almost a fifth of UK households in fuel poverty – the point at which at least 10 per cent of a household's income is spent on heating.

Big increases in the cost of gas and electricity, rather than unemployment or falling income, have been cited as the prime reason for the increase. Government figures showed 5.5 million households were in fuel poverty in 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, compared with 4.5 million in 2008.

Of the 5.5 million homes judged to be in fuel poverty, 4.5 million are the homes of vulnerable people – the elderly, disabled, long-term sick and children. The number of people in fuel poverty fell rapidly between 1996 and 2004 but has risen sharply since, and is expected to rise by at least another 100,000 households this year.

The Government was accused of underestimating the true scale of the problem by uSwitch.com, an online price comparison service. Ann Robinson, the website's director of consumer policy, said: "The Department of Energy's fuel poverty figures are out of date and out of touch with reality. They date back to 2009, whereas in fact 24 per cent, or 6.3 million households, are living in fuel poverty today."

Consumer Focus believes the number will be as high as 6.4 million – 12 million people – after this year's price increases. Audrey Gallacher, the organisation's director of energy, said: "Increasing energy costs create hardship for millions of the poorest pensioners, families and disabled people, leaving many cutting back on heating or other essentials."

In 2009 gas costs rose 14 per cent and electricity by 5 per cent, but only days ago British Gas, which last year had record profits of £742m, announced its prices are to rise by 18 per cent (£121 per year for the average household) for gas and 16 per cent for electricity (£71). Major suppliers are expected to follow suit, leaving the average annual dual fuel bill at £1,450, a 50 per cent increase since 2007.

Suppliers blame the increases on rising wholesale prices. But Ofgem says it has evidence providers increase prices faster than they reduce them.