Long, cold winter for 3 million who can’t pay their energy bills

Fears that 200 people a day could die as temperatures fall and prices rise

Three million elderly people fear they will not be able to stay warm in their own homes this winter, following the recent steep increases in the cost of heating, according to research published today.

The plight of many older householders emerged as the Government faced renewed calls to offer immediate help to lower-income families struggling to pay energy bills. Four of the “Big Six” energy companies have raised their prices before the winter surge in demand, with the average combined electricity and gas bill now standing at £1,267 per year.

Executives from the firms, which have been accused of acting as a cartel, will appear before MPs tomorrow to defend the sharp rises. Yesterday their trade organisation dismissed calls for a windfall tax on the Big Six, insisting their profits were not “particularly big”.

Over the weekend it also emerged that energy companies have been using tax loopholes. Although he declined to comment on individual companies, Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said yesterday: “People are rightly livid about companies and individuals avoiding paying the proper amount of tax. I’m livid about that. It is something which is not acceptable at any time, but particularly at a time when we’re going through tough spending choices.”

He was speaking after The Independent on Sunday reported that three companies – Scotia Gas, UK Power Networks and Electricity Northwest – had saved £140m between them by using legal tax loopholes to minimise their liabilities. With  gas and electricity prices continuing to dominate exchanges between political leaders, a survey for Age UK found that 28 per cent of pensioners said their main concern for the coming cold months was ensuring they could heat their homes. The charity said the figures suggested the problems could affect as many as three million older people across the UK.

Age UK also raised the alarm over the health dangers to the elderly people, warning that cold weather and poorly heated homes increased the risk not only of influenza but also of heart attack and stroke. There are about 24,000 excess deaths in a typical British winter, many of them preventable.

Age UK said more than 40 per cent were caused by heart attack or stroke. Caroline Abrahams, the charity’s director, said: “It’s vital for older people to keep warm, both inside and outside their homes in the winter months. Being cold, even for just a short amount of time, can be very dangerous, as it increases the risk of associated health problems and preventable deaths during the winter.”

Senior executives from the Big Six will be challenged to justify the recent price hikes when they appear before the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. Simon Hughes, the Deputy Liberal Democrat leader, said Chancellor George Osborne should use the Autumn Statement in December to announce emergency help for families struggling with bills.

“I would like people to have a rebate on energy bills that would help the poorest most and would mean that there would be immediate relief this year, not waiting for the post-election period,” he told BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has said an incoming Labour government would force energy firms to freeze their prices for 19 months, while the former Tory Prime Minister Sir John Major has called for a levy on their profits.

But Angela Knight, chief executive of Energy UK, which represents the companies, said their profits were not large enough to justify a windfall tax. “The profits here are, what, four to five per cent, four or five pence in the pound. That isn’t particularly big,” she said. She added that the companies were also making large investments in the UK and therefore had to have an “operating margin”.

The Government has invested an extra £500m in A&E services in a bid to avoid another winter crisis on emergency wards. A&E units have been under increased pressure for several months. MPs warned in the summer that the system may struggle to cope in the event of a major winter flu pandemic.

Dr Paul Cosford, director for health protection and medical director at Public Health England (PHE), said: “In colder weather, keeping yourself warm is essential to staying healthy, especially for the very young, older people or those with a chronic condition such as heart disease and asthma. There are a range of health problems associated with cold housing and winter weather, but, in particular, a cold indoor or outdoor environment can make heart and respiratory problems worse and can be fatal.”

PHE said living-room temperatures should ideally be kept at 70F (21C) and above, whereas bedroom temperatures should be kept at a minimum of 64F (18C).

Health leaders have also urged all at-risk groups – including the over-65s – to have a flu vaccination.

PHE will work with the Met Office between 1 November and 31 March 2014. Low temperatures of 2C or less or a spell of heavy snow will trigger cold weather alerts, which require hospitals, social care systems and GP surgeries to ensure they are prepared for spikes in demand.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test