THE Government must limit a "stealth tax on the poor" imposed by energy companies on customers who do not pay by direct debit, Parliament has heard.

Nearly 180 MPs, from all the major parties, have signed a Commons motion calling on the coalition to limit the charges. It states official Government statistics have found the charges add an average of £114 to a bill.

It adds that 45% of customers do not pay their bills by direct debit and urges the industry regulator Ofgem to set up an inquiry in to the charges.

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Conservative MP Robert Halfon (Harlow), who led the debate in the Commons, said energy firms found to be charging disproportionate fees should be fined or subject to a windfall tax to ensure cash is passed back to the consumer.

He also called for fundamental reforms to the system, including charging customers who pay their bills late, greater transparency and a "moderate cap" on direct debit fees. The Tory said his investigation produced "shocking" results, with 17 companies out of the 26 that replied charging their customers different rates depending on the payment method.

Mr Halfon told the Commons: "I believe these charges effectively act as a stealth tax on the poor."