Thousands of west London pensioners may be plunged into fuel poverty unless the Government acts to soften the blow of an expected 35 per cent gas price hike.
The stark warning comes from leading charities for the elderly, including local Age Concern branches, which have been inundated with calls from worried pensioners fearing they will be hardest hit by the massive price rise. With some household gas bills predicted to top £1,000 a year, there are fears many elderly people will be forced to cut back on heating, food and other essentials in an effort to spend within tight budgets.
Age Concern, and consumer lobby group Energywatch, are urging the Government to increase winter fuel payments and introduce a windfall tax on Centrica - owners of British Gas - which reported record profits of just under £1billion in the same week as making the gloomy forecast for householders.
"Older people bear the burden of price rises as they are sometimes reluctant or unable review the complex deals, or compare fuel prices offered by different companies," said Sarah Fried of Kensington and Chelsea Age Concern.
"People are very worried and it's still only summer. Last year's winter fuel payments were insufficient and unless the Government makes more cash available I think we'll see a dramatic rise in fuel poverty, hardship and stress among the older people."
The price increase will hurt people living alone and on fixed incomes - such as a state pension of £90.7 before add-ons. But experts warn the number forced into fuel poverty - defined as the level where 10 per cent or more of income goes on fuel payments - will spike over coming months.
"When prices rise those unable to top-up their incomes are hit hard - it's an axiomatic thing," said Stan Davison chairman of the Greater London Forum for Older People.
"The impact of 35 per cent prices will be appalling and older people will be faced with horrible choices like heating only one of two rooms, or turning off the heat altogether. I suspect the Government will force the energy companies to come up with emergency measures to protect pensioners - it's political dynamite if it doesn't."
The Labour Government has pledged to eradicate fuel poverty for vulnerable people such as pensioners by 2010 and for all consumers by 2016.
Gordon Brown last week said he would plough hundreds of millions of pounds into this year's cold weather payments but faces pressure to introduce a windfall tax on Centrica and other energy companies making a killing on the spiralling cost of gas and oil.
Adam Scorer, Energywatch campaigns director, called on Ofgem, the energy regulator, said: "If the era of cheap energy is over, then the era of cheap solutions to fuel poverty is over as well. Unless the Government acts quickly there will be questions about whether it has effectively abandoned the fight to meet its fuel poverty targets."