Kate Hughes: Hypothermia or debt is no choice at all

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The Independent Online

Last week's announcement that the Government hopes to throw £1bn at the energy price crisis reinforces the point that Gordon and Alistair should not be left in a room together without adults present.

There are several vague promises about improving energy efficiency in the nation's homes, and if you have been living in one room for most of 2008 with the bailiffs at the door, you may be one of the very lucky 40,000 people – of the 5.4 million now in fuel poverty – who will be awarded £180 a year.

In all its charity, the Government will even give the over-60s £50 this winter towards their fuel payments. Which is nice, but it won't begin to counter the £380, or 42 per cent, hike in the average household energy bill that we have suffered in just eight months, according to figures from uSwitch.

Fuel-price rises this year will cost consumers £4.3bn, so forgive me if I find this half-baked measure a little pathetic. And I'm not alone.

"The lack of political will to tackle fuel poverty is not just disappointing – it approaches negligence," says Allan Asher, chief executive of the consumer watchdog energywatch.

"While the Government has now woken up to the scale of the challenge and is becoming alert to the need for some action, the sense of urgency is lacking."

So yet again, we have been presented with a sticking plaster to treat a severed artery, because no one has the guts to apply a tourniquet at the source.

Energy price misery is certainly not over yet; indeed, it may have hardly got started. USwitch predicts further increases of at least 14 per cent, which means the average household bill could hit almost £1,500 a year by early 2009.

"The reality is that many vulnerable households will still be unable to afford to heat their homes this winter, while energy companies continue to see their profits rise," adds Adam Sampson at the homelessness charity Shelter.

So the Government should not be throwing a few pennies into the pond in some sort of slack-wristed spasm. As Kate Green of the Child Poverty Action Group puts it: "Hypothermia or hundreds of pounds of debt is not a choice any British family should be left with."

If he is still feeling a little timid, then why doesn't our Prime Minister start by dragging a few of these highly profitable energy companies over the warm and well-lit threshold of No 10 and asking them about the vast increases they have imposed on their customers in relation to the wholesale price of energy. It is perhaps too much to hope that he can find the courage to levy a windfall tax on energy companies' profits. That would be an act of true bravery.

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