Andrew Harrop: Government must step in to make suppliers play fair

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The Independent Online

While winter means nothing more than putting on gloves and a scarf to most of us, thousands of older people dread plummeting temperatures as they can't afford to keep warm. A fall of one or two degrees forces the most vulnerable to choose between heating and eating.

We meet people who stay in bed to keep warm or only heat one room of the house because they are frightened they won't be able to pay their bills.

More than 5 million households are in fuel poverty, and nearly half of these are pensioners. As the price of gas and electricity has spiralled in the last five years, with huge hikes in 2006 and 2008, the problem has worsened.

There has been little let-up for customers from energy suppliers, who have indicated prices are not likely to come down soon despite the drop in wholesale prices. They also penalise the poorest families and pensioners for paying by cash, cheque or pre-payment meter rather than by direct debit.

The consequences are stark. The UK has one of the highest number of excess winter deaths in Europe – higher than countries such as Finland, Denmark and Austria.

The Government has admitted it won't meet its target to end fuel poverty for vulnerable households by 2010, and its target of ending all fuel poverty by 2016 now looks remote.

Despite pressure from Age Concern and Help the Aged to ensure ministers keep their promises on this issue – including taking a case to the High Court – fuel poverty remains unacceptably high. The Government must urgently introduce a programme to super-insulate homes across the UK, and intervene to ensure suppliers offer fair prices to their most vulnerable customers.

Andrew Harrop is head of public policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged