by Sarah Scott
A BLEAK winter is in store for the most vulnerable in our society as energy prices soar.
Energy experts have issued warnings as rocketing fuel prices could equal miserable winter months for millions, in particular pensioners and single-parent families.
Rising wholesale costs could mean electricity prices shoot up by 60% with gas increases of up to 54%.
But these increasing bills come at a time when it has been revealed bosses at the big six energy suppliers took home collective earnings of more than £10m just as they were implementing price rises for millions of consumers last winter.
EDF Energy, led by chief executive Vincent de Rivaz, gave its highest-paid employee a 30% rise to £1.3m.
Campaigners branded the wages paid as “outrageous.”
Going hand-in-hand with rising energy prices are predictions that this winter is due to be the harshest one in years.
Weather experts have warned to expect well below average temperatures and widespread snowfall.
According to uSwitch.com, the comparison website, since November last year energy suppliers have increased their prices by £224 or 21% on average. As a result, the average household energy bill has risen from £1,069 to £1,293 a year.
With these changes, fuel poverty numbers have spiraled with 6.9 million people, or 27% of households, now affected.
Pensioners are one of the worst-hit groups with an increasing number of deaths from the cold each year.
Along with rising energy costs pensioners have also been hit by a cut in their winter fuel allowance this year since the Conservative Government came into power.
Susan Neill, affordable warmth advisor for Age UK Darlington, said she had noticed a marked increase in the number of concerned pensioners and families coming to use her service, seeking advice on rising energy bills and how to deal with the cuts in winter fuel allowance.
“I think it is really unfair because a lot of people do depend on that and people have been coming in saying they are cutting that and asking if it will eventually go. And people are worried winter fuel allowance will stop altogether,” she said.
Susan also branded the pay packets of energy company bosses as “outrageous”.
“They are making money out of people who are the most vulnerable.
“They make more and more money while the poorest in society are struggling more and more each year,” she said.
Susan said her office in Beaumont Street in Darlington had seen an increase in the number of worried pensioners coming in with questions about how they would pay their energy bills and complaining about cuts in winter fuel allowance.
“Since the fuel increases we have had a lot more people than the last year so we offer this free service in Darlington which is open to anyone, that offers all households free advice on fuel and energy related issues.
“The people coming into us at the moment tend to be worried about putting the heating on because they feel at the end of the winter they will be left with a huge heating bill.
“We try and look at ways they can get on to a tariff were it will be cheaper for them.
“I think pensioners are struggling, even those who have a little bit above the ordinary pension. Even those people are coming in saying they do not know what to do.”
She added that from August 2010 to the end of November 2010 they dealt with 95 individuals seeking help with energy bills, but from August 2011 until so far this month they have already seen 137 people come through their doors.
“It has just come as a shock to people. It does make me angry and you feel sorry for them because, for a lot of people, it is not only fuel, but other general living expenses.
“There is just not enough support there for them.”
One pensioner who is beginning to feel the pinch is 73-year-old Mavis Smith, pictured right. Over the past decade Mavis has seen her energy bills rocket.
But with the projected increases ahead, the retired civil servant, who lives with her 82-year-old cousin Joan Wood, could struggle to pay the bills to heat and light her home.
“If fuel costs keep rising we will just move into one room and take equity out because that is the situation we will be in,” Mavis said.
Mavis said she used to pay just £500 a year for gas and electricity when she was in her 60s.
“There was a system called Stay Warm set out on the size of your house. It was only for people who were retired at that time.
“We paid £500 every year and that gave you unlimited access to gas and electricity.
“In other words you could heat your house 24 hours a day and you did not pay any more,” said Mavis.
“Steadily that has increased. I am now 73 and over the last 10 to 11 years that has gone up from £500 and we now pay £45 a week which equals £2,340 a year, that’s how much it is.
“To be honest there is nothing I can do about it, we have to heat the house,” she added.
Mavis, of Kibblesworth, Gateshead, admitted that she and her cousin now ration their heating, and despite getting a state pension and a private pension they still envision struggling with any future energy hikes.
“We have our thermal underwear and socks and cardigans, and we are just careful. What happens when the day comes when we cannot pay it, I do not know,” she said.
Mavis does receive £300 from the Government towards her fuel bills, but she pointed out that both she and her cousin pay tax yet do not have an income.
In a landmark report, Professor John Hills, from the London School of Economics, said there are 27,000 extra deaths in England every winter.
And according to uSwitch.com almost nine in 10 households will be rationing their energy use this winter to save on bills.
As a result, potentially 23 million households will be switching off or turning down this winter.
Sean Fahey, regional secretary of the North East Pensioners’ Association, said: “If we have a cold winter and people turn their heating off, or do not put it on as much, the death rate rises.
“The most vulnerable in the community are the ones that will struggle the most.”