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Millions of vulnerable people are eligible for cold weather payments

Cold weather payments to the poorest have been triggered as temperatures have plummeted across the UK.

The payments are made when temperatures are recorded as, or are forecast to be, zero degrees celsius over seven consecutive days.

Around four million people are potentially eligible for the payments of £25 per week.

But there are concerns that many could be missing out because they don't think they are eligible.

“Cold weather payments provide real help to the most vulnerable people,” said pensions minister, Steve Webb.

“We don't want people to worry about turning up their heating when temperatures plummet.”

Over two million older people in receipt of the Pension Credit will get the payment for each seven-day period of below-zero temperatures.

Payments are also made to disabled adults and children, and families with children under 5 who receive an income-related benefit.

People do not need to claim cold weather payments as they are paid automatically to those who are entitled.

However, there are thousands of people who do not believe they are entitled to the means-tested benefits that they are connected to.

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According to Age UK, £5.4bn of means-tested benefits went unclaimed in 2008/9.

Between 27 and 38% of older people who are eligible to the pension credit are not claiming it, either because they don't know about it or don't think they are eligible.

There are also some who don't claim because they feel ashamed.

“In the cold weather we know that older people will worry about turning up the heating so we would encourage anyone who is cold and worried about money to get a benefits check,” a spokesperson for Age UK told the BBC.

“They can do this by going to their local Age Concern centre or by calling the helpline 0800 169 6565.”

The Pension Credit is a so-called gateway benefit which, if claimed, leads to further government help.

If you don't claim Pension Credit you could be missing out.

There is also plenty of help out there from the energy providers themselves for people on lower incomes.

Research by the Home Heat Helpline found that 5.2 million households across the country are not claiming free insulation grants and reduced tariffs to which they are entitled.

Home Heat Helpline is urging the British public to find out abut what help is available.

Rising fuel prices
Thousands of people don't claim benefits which could help them with heating costs

Meanwhile as temperatures fall, energy prices continue to rise.

According to experts, wholesale gas prices are near their highest level since February 2009. Earlier this week the key day-ahead contract traded at 57.25 pence a therm.

The cold snap of the past week has led to a rapid rise in demand for gas which is used both for heating and also for generating electricity.

Electricity prices are also rising, but they are far lower than the record set five years ago.

“Demand is high at the moment so it's surprising that prices haven't moved more,” said Niall Trimble, managing director of consultants The Energy Contract Company.

“In November 2005, when we had a similar cold snap, gas prices went to £1.65 on daily spot prices.”

But according to market experts, the gas prices are unlikely to come off their highs as long as the cold spell lasts.

“The recent higher prices are not necessarily going to affect prices for retail consumers unless the cold spell is prolonged,” said Edward Fox, gas market analyst at Icis Heren.

“If the cold snap ends soon and demand drops back to normal levels, it is likely that spot prices will come off these highs.”

Shortage of supply leads to higher gas prices, but analysts believe that the UK is fundamentally well supplied with gas for the foreseeable future.