Poll reveals more than 7m households are in fuel poverty

Failure of companies to pass on wholesale price falls hits Britain's poor this winter

More than seven million households struggle to pay their fuel bills, almost double the official estimate, according to new research published today.

In an opinion poll for the National Housing Federation, two-thirds of people in "fuel poverty" said they heated their homes less than would like because they could not afford the high prices of gas and electricity. The research adds to pressure on ministers to take action against energy suppliers to bring down bills and increase social support for vulnerable households to ensure they can stay healthy in the cold.

Fuel bills average £1,239 a year, having fallen by only 4 per cent in 2009 despite the costs of wholesale gas and electricity more than halving.

According to the Government's official fuel poverty statistics released in October, 4 million homes in the UK in 2007 were in fuel poverty, spending at least 10 per cent of their income on heat and power. But in the latest research, a YouGov poll of 2,050 adults, 29 per cent of those surveyed said they spent more than a 10th of their income on fuel, equating to 7.25 million households.

Sixty-one per cent of people claimed to be "worried" or "very worried" about how they would pay their energy bills.

An overwhelming majority, 72 per cent, also said energy suppliers should stop charging prepayment meter customers for the installation and maintenance of meters, which can cost families an extra £108 a year. As part of this newspaper's campaign against the Great Energy Rip-off, The Independent is calling for a 10 per cent reduction in bills and for powers for the regulator Ofgem to act against suppliers which fail to pass on falls in wholesale costs.

In a separate analysis published today, the Conservative Party claims that 2.4m pensioner households – one in three – are in fuel poverty following the sharp rise in energy prices. Although official figures will not be released for two years, the Tories have calculated the impact on pensioners of energy price rises. The party says that the number of pensioner households spending at least 10 per cent of their income on fuel has risen fourfold since 2004, when it was 604,000 – one in 12.

The Tories say Labour will miss its target to abolish fuel poverty in vulnerable households, including those with a pensioner, by 2010. Greg Clark, the shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, said: "Ministers' warm words will have a hollow ring this Christmas as many pensioners are forced to choose between heating and eating."

In the National Housing Federation's poll, 5 per cent thought Ofgem was doing a good job of protecting vulnerable customers, with 46 per cent saying it had performed poorly.

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, an umbrella group for housing charities, said: "The findings of our poll are truly shocking. As the recession continues to bite, up to 7 million households are in fuel poverty. Huge numbers of vulnerable people will go cold this winter because they can't afford to heat their homes. The spiralling cost of energy and the impact of the downturn mean heating our homes has become a luxury rather than a basic necessity – particularly for the elderly, low paid and unemployed."