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Long, Cold Winter For 3 Million Who Can’t Pay Their Energy Bills

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Charlie Cooper, The Independent

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.

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