One of the UK's biggest energy suppliers came under fire yesterday after one of its senior executives said consumers struggling with record-high gas prices should keep warm by putting on two jumpers.
Charities for the aged and consumer groups reacted angrily at the comments made by Jake Ulrich, the managing director of Centrica, which owns British Gas. Mr Ulrich made his comments after a report commissioned by his firm warned that household gas bills could rise by 66 per cent over the next two years. That could see some families receiving a £1,000 bill for their gas alone.
British Gas customers have already seen a 15 per cent rise in their gas bill this year, adding an average of £130 to their bills. There were protests from the firm's customers in February, after Centrica posted increased profits of £571m for 2007.
Mr Ulrich said: "I think people will change the temperature they keep the house. I hate to go back to the Jimmy Carter days in the US, but maybe it's two jumpers instead of one."
Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern, said: "The millions of pensioners affected by fuel poverty will need much more than an extra jumper to stay warm and well this winter. It is unacceptable that older people could be putting their health at risk because they don't feel they can afford to heat their home adequately. Far more radical action is needed from both the Government and energy companies if the poorest and most vulnerable pensioners are to be protected."
He also urged the Government to introduce emergency measures, such as a fuel voucher scheme, to make sure the nation's poorest pensioners could survive the winter ahead.
Graham Kerr, from the energy industry consumer group Energywatch, said the "inappropriate throwaway lines" from British Gas showed they had lost touch with their customers.
He said: "British Gas customers such as pensioners and others who are on low or fixed incomes are unlikely to see the funny side of suggestions from Centrica that they should put on another jumper to protect themselves against energy price hikes. "The remarks demonstrate how out of touch they are with the daily struggle for their vulnerable customers to keep warm. British Gas and Centrica claim to take fuel poverty seriously, comments like this don't help anyone."
Mr Ulrich told The Independent last night that he, "certainly didn't mean to cause any offence" in making the comments.
"My comments were intended to reflect that people are already thinking about energy efficiency as a way of offsetting increasing energy prices. Upon reflection, I appreciate how they might have been misconstrued and regret any offence caused."
Mr Ulrich also claimed that high oil prices and falling UK production meant that cheap energy was a thing of the past. A barrel of oil hit a record price of $147 this month, but has since fallen back to $133 a barrel.
Energywatch accused the company of making an "artificial and toxic link" between its high gas prices and oil.
It is not the first time that a call to put on extra layers to combat the cold has caused outrage. The former Conservative MP Edwina Currie landed herself in trouble when sheadvised the elderly to guard against hypothermia by wearing "woolly hats and long johns".
The energy supplier Npower caused a similar row in 2006. After increasing energy prices three times that year, it suggested that children should be kept warm with woolly hats and hot water bottles.
Looking good in layers
Guga Filho, a personal shopper at Selfridges in London, said Britons did not always manage to pull off a multi-layered look with style.
"It's not a matter of just putting two things on top of each other," he said. For women, wearing a three-quarter sleeved jacket with a long sleeved T-shirt was also a traditional no-no.
But anyone expecting to turn down the heating this winter will be pleased to know that the look is now in vogue. But chunky jumpers should never be worn together.
As for men, the fashion pundit Iain R Webb said that adding extra clothes could be "intensely stylish" when done correctly. He said: "A fine cashmere crew-neck top, which are available on the high street, can be layered with a cardigan or knitted jacket.
"In fact, Bill Gibb, a designer from the 1970s, based his trademark style around wearing four or five layers of different knitted pieces."