Millions of pensioners will feel the cold as energy prices soar

Age Concern warns 40 per cent of over-65s will not turn on their heating as they can't afford bills
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The Independent Online

Five million people will avoid switching on their heating to keep warm this winter as they struggle to afford higher fuel bills, according to new research.

Polling of pensioners by the charity Age Concern found that 38 per cent were cutting back on gas and 41 per cent on electricity this year because of fears that they could not afford the prices. With 13 million pensioners in the UK, the charity's findings suggest that 5.2 million people over 60 will go cold at some point this winter.

According to the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, the number of households in fuel poverty – where more than 10 per cent of income goes on heating and lighting – has trebled in five years, from 1.2 million in 2003 to 4 million last September.

The government advisory group says the biggest cause is rising energy prices. Yesterday The Independent launched a campaign against the Great Energy Rip-off, calling for the Big Six suppliers to lower their prices by 10 per cent. We are also urging people switch to a cheaper supplier to stimulate competition in the £25bn-a year-British energy market.

According to independent analysts, bills are at least 10 per cent too high because suppliers have not passed on the full impact of a halving of wholesale prices, even considering they are locked into some long-term contracts.

Surging prices have turned fuel poverty into one of the Government's greatest failures. According to the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, rising fuel prices mean ministers now have no hope of hitting their target of removing all "vulnerable" households from fuel poverty by 2010.

Using the latest population and fuel price figures, Age Concern estimates the number of households in fuel poverty has swelled to 5 million, almost as many as the 6.5 million households in 1996, when the Government started keeping statistics.

As well as having low incomes and high bills, the "fuel poor" live in the least insulated housing in Europe, says the watchdog Consumer Focus. Faced with a choice between food and fuel, many opt not to switch on radiators or gas fires – at a cost to their health.

Britain experiences a greater number of "excess winter deaths" than most other European countries, despite enjoying milder winters than Scandinavian states.

The Office for National Statistics has calculated there were 24,995 "excess winter deaths" between December 2007 and March 2008. Three quarters of those that die each year are aged 75 or over.

Age Concern spokesman Stefano Gelmini said: "If older people cut back on their heating during a colder winter this could raise the numbers affected by cold-related illness, which contributes to thousands of excess winter deaths of older people each year."

Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, explained: "If people live in the cold – particularly the elderly and those living alone – they are more likely to to get cardiovascular problems, heart attacks and strokes, and chronic lung conditions like bronchitis.

"They can become less mobile. They try to keep one room warm, and because they don't move about so much and don't go out so much they can get quite depressed, so there are mental health problems too."

He added: "The harder it is for people to heat their homes, the more deaths there will be. A particular concern for the Faculty of Public Health Medicine is that higher energy prices are unequal in their impact and hit the poor more."

Energy suppliers have been accused of overcharging pre-payment customers, which include a higher proportion of low-income and vulnerable groups.

After years of complaints, Ofgem, the energy regulator, last year found that pre-payment and other customer groups were being overcharged by £500m. It ordered suppliers to stop inflating their bills over the extra cost of running pre-payment schemes but pre-payment tariffs remain £259 more expensive, on average, than internet tariffs, drawing a claim of "inequity" from the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group.

In the past two months two new independent operators have entered the national energy market, undercutting the Big Six – EDF, E.ON, British Gas, Npower, ScottishPower, and Scottish & Southern, whose standard annual bills average £1,239 a year.

Within hours of our launch yesterday, First:Utility and Ovo Energy – which charge £954 and £978 respectively – reported receiving far more new inquiries.

"Ovo Energy has seen a surge in customer registrations, with daily registration figures having already doubled. It is great that customers are voting with their feet and finding the best deals on the market," a spokeswoman said.

First:Utility said: "So far we have had a 19 per cent increase in visits to the website. We get a lot of traffic from switching sites but we won't know those statistics for a day."

Only 5 per cent of households, 1.3 million, are on internet tariffs. Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at price comparison website uSwitch.com, urged customers to join them. "This way, regardless of whether price cuts materialise or not, you will already be enjoying the most competitive energy prices this winter," she said.

Pensioner: 'If there's a sudden cold spell I get very apprehensive'

Mary Phillips, 73, lives alone in a council flat in East Dulwich, south London. She has a monthly income of £620 and her energy bills cost her £64 a month

"My pension and pension credit comes to £155. I don't have any other income. I'm divorced with three children, but none of them are in a position to help me financially. I wouldn't want them to.

"EDF provide my electricity. They wrote to me two months ago to say my bill would be going up to £28 a month based on estimated usage. It had been £17 a month for two or three years before that, and I've not been using it any more than I did then. My gas and heating are from British Gas, and that bill is £36 a month.

"The flats were built in the 1930s. It's a brick building, which is warmer than the 60s and 70s ones, which is fortunate.

"I've only recently put the heating back on for the winter, but I switched it off again last night, as I'm worried it will cost too much. If they put the monthly charge up again I won't be able to pay it.

"I don't freeze, I wouldn't sit here and freeze, but if there's a sudden cold spell, like in July, I get very apprehensive about switching it on."

Disabled father: 'In the evenings we sit in our sweaters and under blankets'

Balwant Gosai, 59, lives with his wife Kalpna, 56, his carer, in Coventry. Their joint income, including his disability benefit, is £1,000 a month and their energy bills come to £143 a month

"We have lived in a three-bedroom terrace house for 15 years, but nine years ago I was forced to stop working as I was diagnosed with epilepsy, and haven't been able to work since. Now I am on disability allowance. I also suffer from glaucoma, and had an operation last year, but I'm still partially sighted. We have a son who is 29 – he's a student so he isn't able to help us out. We don't have any other relatives who can help us.

"We pay British Gas £108 a month for gas and heating. Electricity is another £35. We only switch the heating on for an hour in the morning and in the evening. In the evenings we sit in our sweaters and under blankets. The hot water is on for longer.

"We had a government grant for insulation and a new combi-boiler – they were here installing it for nearly a week. They said it will bring our costs down, but if prices continue to rise I'm worried that it won't make very much difference. We have to be very careful how we spend the rest of our money."

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