Cold snap set to last through the weekend

Britain looks set for colder temperatures today with the Big Chill lasting at least until Sunday as the row over cold weather payments hotted up.

Forecasters predicted that stronger winds from the North- east would cause parts of the country to feel even colder today, with snow flurries in Kent and the east coast causing more problems for motorists.

Meanwhile Harriet Harman, Labour spokesman for Social Security, said it was a "scandal" that millions of people were so poor they had to choose between heating and food. She called for improved pensions and for VAT on fuel to be cut from 8 per cent to no more than 5 per cent.

"We shouldn't have so many people who have worked hard all their lives, either out at work or bringing up their children, who then find they retire into poverty."

David Winnick, who led a delegation of Labour MPs to Downing Street calling for change to the way cold-weather payments are made, said their case had been strengthened by the events of the past week.

"It shows the farcical nature of the system that exists that it has taken over a week of very, very cold weather before at long last payments are being made," said Mr Winnick, MP for Walsall North. Labour MP Ann Clywd also called for the wind chill factor to be taken into account when measuring how cold it really is.

Andrew Mitchell, junior Social Security minister, said he was satisfied with the way cold weather payments system operated.

"We have announced that the scheme is triggered today across large parts of the country. A further pounds 8m will be being paid."

Some pounds 19m had been paid out since Christmas, he added. Mr Mitchell said the Government was considering taking the wind chill factor into account, but warned it would not be easy.

Despite the end of the holidays, motoring organisations reported quiet roads as many people stayed at home rather than risk trying to get to work.

A spokesman for the Automobile Association said: "Traffic is very, very light and we certainly didn't see anything like a rush hour."

However, for those who did venture out there were problems getting cars started. The RAC said it was reciving up to 3,000 emergency calls an hour yesterday.

The coldest place in Britain on Wednesday night was RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, where a temperature of minus 12C was recorded.

The warmest place was in the Western Isles of Scotland which enjoyed a balmy 7C overnight, on a par with Nice.

The London Weather Centre said: "We are not expecting a big thaw in the next few days and if anything things are going to get colder with snow working its way to the south coast by tonight," a spokeswoman said.

The cold snap claimed another two lives yesterday bringing the death toll to at least 10 since last weekend.