A final plea was made to ministers yesterday to ensure Wales’ most vulnerable people are not punished by this week’s budget cuts as the nation’s pensioners brace themselves for an expensive winter.

The Labour-Plaid Assembly Government’s budget will be unveiled tomorrow afternoon and charities and campaigning groups are making last-ditch calls to protect the elderly and help the homeless.

Campaigners warned that Wales’ population is ageing more rapidly than the rest of the UK’s. Today one in four adults in Wales is aged 65-plus but by 2031 this will have increased to one in three.

Ruth Marks, the Older People's Commissioner for Wales, warned against a “knee jerk reaction to immediate financial pressures” and said she shared the concerns of pensioners, their carers and their families.

Meanwhile, new research revealed the scale of fear across Wales about energy costs this winter.

More than half the population of Wales (54%) are worried about paying for their gas and electricity bills over the winter, found Consumer Focus Wales. This was especially true for people living with a long-term illness or disability (75%) and those aged 65 and over (62%).

Maria Battle, senior director of Consumer Focus Wales, said: “Ahead of another potentially freezing winter, action needs to be taken now to identify and provide appropriate support to vulnerable people who may be living in fuel debt or reducing their heating to dangerous levels.

“Latest excess winter deaths figures show that around 2,500 older people died in Wales during the winter of 2008-2009 – the highest it has been for almost a decade. This is totally unacceptable.”

Age Cymru is demanding that funding is ring-fenced to ensure that the Assembly Government’s strategy to tackle pensioner poverty, ill-health and age discrimination can be put into action.

Cymorth Cymru, the umbrella body for providers of housing-related support, will hold a vigil outside the Senedd tomorrow.

Joy Kent, the group’s director, said she was pleased by ministers’ commitment to protect vulnerable people but said: “Because of the economic situation we are already seeing greater demand for services and we will see more as the public funding cuts hit the Welsh economy.

“The result will be more people facing unemployment with all the emotional and health problems that often follow, and because of the reforms these problems will be exacerbated by debt, rent arrears and in some cases, homelessness.”

Age Cymru chief executive Robert Taylor called on the Assembly Government not to let progress made in recent years be undone.

He said: “Governments throughout the UK and the world are envious of the achievements of the Strategy for Older People in Wales to date, but there is still a considerable amount to be achieved in tackling outdated ageist attitudes and in combating ill-health and poverty among older people in Wales.”

The annual report of the Older People’s Commissioner will be debated today in the Assembly.

Ms Marks wants to see evidence that older people have been consulted and is demanding a “robust evaluation of the impact on any changes to services”.

She said: “We will be looking for assurances that any proposed changes to services relating to older people prevent dependency, ensure safety, and do not compromise the quality of care. There is a particular need in times of economic difficulty to address extremes of poverty and protect people in situations where they are vulnerable.”

Consumer Focus Wales’ research highlights the difficulties the population as a whole is facing as people struggle to pay for necessities.

Across the adult population, 13% had fallen into arrears on household bills during the previous 12 months.

Ms Battle said: “[No-one] in Wales should have to live in a cold home. With energy costs remaining high and rising and another harsh winter predicted, the findings of this research highlight the constant struggle and worry many people in Wales face to adequately heat and power their homes and keep up with bill payments...

“Vulnerable older people and people with long-term health conditions often spend long periods of time at home. Cutting back on heating can aggravate existing health problems.”

The agency wants the Assembly Government to introduce a crisis fund for people who cannot afford to heat their homes. It also wants a statutory duty placed on local authorities to tackle fuel poverty.