£550m PRE-PAY TAKEN FROM POOR

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The GMB trade union yesterday condemned the huge profits being made out of the poorest customers by gas and electricity companies.

New watchdog Consumer Focus, said on Saturday that it estimates that gas and electricity companies make around half a billion pounds a year in extra charges from prepayment meters.

A GMB spokesman told News Line yesterday: ‘The GMB moved a motion at the Labour Party conference calling for the regulator to be given powers to cap the price that energy companies can charge prepayment customers.’

With fuel bill up an average of 27% this year, Consumer Focus said: ‘Five million households will find themselves in fuel poverty this winter. This is simply unacceptable.’

The number of homes in fuel poverty in England rose from 1.5 million in 2005 to 2.4 million in 2006, including an extra 700,000 vulnerable households.

Consumer Focus added that about 1,000 prepayment meters a day are being installed in households where people have got into debt over their energy bills.

The new watchdog, which replaces Energywatch, says some customers are being forced to use prepayment meters.

It said energy firms are using customers who pay by prepayment meter to subsidise customers who can get the cheapest deals.

Jonathan Stearn of Consumer Focus said: ‘Companies could be making up to £550m a year from extra charges they charge on prepayment meters.

‘The energy companies are making the most money out of those on prepayment meters, and often those are the people on the very lowest incomes.’

Social Policy Officer at Citizens Advice, Tony Herbert, reports that the charity’s offices have seen a number of cases where energy companies have pushed indebted customers onto prepayment meters.

Herbert said: ‘These people have built up debt but they are not being offered a range of payment methods and they’re not being offered affordable repayment rates.

‘They’re being pushed onto prepayment meters.’

In one such case, a north London woman had a prepayment meter fitted by E.ON while she was on holiday after the firm said she owed over £700.

Because of a mix-up, she was paying the wrong company, EDF, for her electricity for the past six years and didn’t think she owed a penny.

After weeks of disagreement E.ON got a court warrant to fit a prepayment meter, and, while she was on holiday, removed the locks to gain access to her flat.

EDF has since said it would refund the disputed energy bill.

• Second news story

Assassinate Hamas leaders – Mofaz

Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz yesterday urged Israel to assassinate Hamas government leaders in Gaza in response to the launch of homemade projectiles from the Gaza Strip.

Mofaz said his country must ‘stop talking and launch a personal targeted killing policy against the Hamas government.’

Mofaz, a member of the ruling Kadima party, said yesterday: ‘It turns out that Israel’s policy – cutting the supply of goods, electricity and water, is failing to yield the desired results.

‘Moreover, it appears that we are the ones acting like the ones interested in a truce, not Hamas. This approach and policy is wrong.

‘We must convene immediately, form a policy and bring it to the cabinet’s approval as soon as possible.’

At a cabinet meeting earlier, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel is not afraid to use force against Gaza factions launching projectiles at Israeli targets.

Addressing other Israeli leaders at the meeting he was quoted by the Israeli press as saying, ‘We will hurt anyone who tries to violate the truce.’

He told ministers: ‘The responsibility for the shattering of the calm and the creation of a situation of prolonged and repeated violence in the south of the country is entirely on Hamas and the other terror groups in Gaza.’