One in four families are struggling to afford heat and power, according to new figures which show the Government is losing the battle against "fuel poverty".
The number of households in fuel poverty, where at least 10 per cent of income is spent on gas and electricity, rose by 15 per cent to 4 million in 2007, statistics from the Department for Energy and Climate Change showed. A projection for this year suggests there are 6.6 million British homes in fuel poverty, almost treble the number five years ago.
Campaigners said ministers would miss their target of removing all households containing the elderly, disabled and poor from fuel poverty by next year. The biggest factor in the increase is the doubling of energy prices since 2002. The Independent is calling for the Big Six suppliers to lower prices amid claims they are failing to pass on plummeting wholesale costs.
Responding to yesterday's figures, the Government announced a four-step plan to help the fuel poor, including forcing suppliers to increase insulation, funding energy efficiency makeovers for 90,000 homes, making social tariffs compulsory and toughening regulation to combat "market abuse". "We recognise there is still a mountain to climb on fuel poverty because of significant increases in bills and that's why we're determined to redouble our efforts," David Kidney, the Energy minister, said.
The Fuel Poverty Advisory Group (FPAG), a publicly funded body, accused the Government of failing to take the issue seriously, with a planned 47 per cent cut in the Warm Front energy efficiency programme next year.
Derek Lickorish, chairman of FPAG, described its action plan as "totally inadequate". "With the spectre of nearly 7 million households being in fuel poverty within the next 18 months, together with Ofgem's recent announcement of potential price increases of around 25 per cent, with a worst case of a 60 per cent rise, FPAG demands urgent action," he said. He urged ministers to reverse the cuts to Warm Front and "start the massive task" of improving energy efficiency in UK housing, which is among the most thermally wasteful in Europe.
Age Concern warned that this winter many of the 2.5 million fuel poor pensioners would be forced to choose between "eating or heating". Andrew Harrop, its head of policy, said: "Their health will suffer and they will be wracked with anxiety about how they will manage to pay the next energy bill."
Shadow Energy minister Charles Hendry accused ministers of recoiling from regulatory action to sort out the energy market. He said: "The Government should now ask the Competition Commission to conduct an urgent investigation into the prices the energy companies are charging consumers."
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