20/10/2011 12:01 BST | Updated 20/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Fuel Poverty - One Hundred Years on, and no Change

When Macmillan Cancer Support was established a hundred years ago, if you got cancer you lost your income and quickly slipped into poverty.

So the founder of the charity, Douglas Macmillan, handed out sacks of coal to help people with cancer heat their homes. A century on, and as today's chief executive of the charity, incredibly fuel poverty remains one of biggest issues people diagnosed with cancer tell me they face. It is a real, large and hidden issue.

Today that just might have changed. The new Government report written by Professor John Hills tells us that 2,700 people die each year because they cannot afford to keep warm - 50% more people than die on the roads.

Last winter was one of the coldest winters on record. This year, thousands of vulnerable cancer patients will be dreading household fuel bills dropping through their letterboxes. With the average cost of gas and electricity now £1,345 a year, everyone is feeling the pinch. But imagine how you'd cope if you suddenly had to stop working and were hit with a mountain of extra costs as a direct result of an illness like cancer.

People living with cancer have higher bills because they feel the cold more because of their treatment and spend long periods of time at home during their illness. Cancer patients not only need more fuel to keep warm. Minimising the risk of infection during treatment is important and this means extra costs for frequently washing clothes and bedding, and for bathing and general hygiene.

Many cancer patients are forced to stop work altogether and so experience a massive drop income - 50% on average. Other costs like travel to dozens of appointments, parking in hospital car parks and buying different sized clothes mount up too.

One in four cancer patients undergoing treatment are living in fuel poverty although this is now likely to be significantly higher thanks to recent hikes in energy prices. Macmillan knows that in winter one in five cancer patients turn off their heating despite being cold because they are worried about their fuel bills. Despite this, patients are not getting the help they need. Last year, 42% of the 29,000 people who received financial help from Macmillan asked for help with fuel costs, so it's clear the Government and energy companies aren't doing enough.

Currently, only around a quarter of people diagnosed with cancer qualify for the Winter Fuel Payment and only a small percentage of patients benefit from schemes run by energy companies. The Warm Home Discount, which replaces the current 'social tariffs' provided by energy firms, isn't automatically given to cancer patients. Energy companies have been left to set their own criteria. Patients firstly need to know it's available (and they are often not told) and then they have to go through the laborious process of applying for it. Filling in lengthy forms when you are in the middle of chemotherapy is not easy.

Even those who are terminally ill are not guaranteed support. This is despite Macmillan research that shows terminally ill cancer patients do not claim more than £90 million per year in disability benefits even though they are entitled. As cancer patients won't automatically receive the rebate, I fear they will not claim the Warm Home Discount either.

Cancer patients need to put their energy into getting better. It's completely unacceptable that instead they are living in cold homes anxious about how they're going to cope with rocketing fuel bills.

It was good to see Professor Hills recognising that cancer patients can be particularly vulnerable to fuel poverty. I look forward to his final recommendations and hope he will persuade the Government to give people living with cancer the help they desperately need when they need it most. It would be too sad if in another one hundred years, Macmillan's chief executive was again repeating what my predecessor said a century ago.