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Record numbers seek help for energy debt before winter even hits, Citizens Advice warns

24 August 2023
  • Record numbers seeking help from Citizens Advice for energy debt

  • 7.8 million people borrowed to pay their energy bills in first six months of 2023 

  • 1 in 4 people say their energy bill is the essential cost they’re most worried about 

  • Disabled people, single parents and low-income families to be hardest hit this winter

Citizens Advice says it’s helping record numbers of people with energy debts before winter has even begun -  and the size of the debts people face is rising. New research from the charity shows almost eight million people had to borrow money to pay their energy bills in the first half of 2023, a number it forecasts will rise over the coming months.

The charity is warning that its data suggests that millions are facing a winter as bad, or even worse, than last winter, unless the government acts on energy bills. Its research shows disabled people, single parents and low-income households earning less than £29k will be the hardest hit this winter.

Despite an estimated fall in the energy price cap, the average household can actually expect to pay slightly more in the coming winter than they did between January and March 2023 - if current forecasts hold. 

Citizens Advice is calling on the government to do more to help people on the lowest incomes, such as providing additional support through the Warm Home Discount. 

We can't afford the bills now, let alone when it gets colder - Natasha’s story 

Natasha lives with her husband and children. She is unable to work due to mental health problems. Her husband works part-time as he is Natasha's main carer. The family have fallen into arrears with their gas and electric as they just do not have enough money coming in to cover their rent and essential bills.

Natasha said: “Our energy debt is now around £8,000. Even though I am home all day I try not to use too much gas and electricity as I know we can't afford to pay the bills.

“Everything is just so expensive and it’s really hard for me and my family. Just thinking about the energy debts gives me anxiety. My husband no longer speaks with me about the bills as he does not want it to stress me out. But I know after he pays what he can towards bills we have nothing left.

“The bailiffs came to our home because of the gas and electric debt. They looked all around my home and said there was nothing of value to take, then left.

“I know the energy prices will go up again and that is worrying me a lot. Winter is going to be very hard for me and my family as we can’t afford the bills now, so definitely won't be able to afford them when it gets colder. ”

The growing energy debt problem

Starting the winter in debt means there is a real risk of falling even further behind on energy. People have to pay back arrears on top of the costs of increasing energy use in the colder months, and find the funds to cover other essential bills.

Citizens Advice predicts that by the end of this year it will have seen 26% more people in need of help with energy debt compared to 2022. And the charity says the numbers seeking help for energy debt has more than doubled in four years. 

Not only has the number of people in debt increased, but the value of the energy debt has also grown considerably. Ofgem recently estimated the total energy debt owed by consumers to be £2.25 billion. This trend is reflected in Citizens Advice data which shows the average amount of energy debt owed by the people it helps is now around £1,711, a third higher than it was in 2019. 

Households at greatest risk

The charity’s analysis shows disabled people and families with young children, particularly single parents, are more likely to have very high levels of energy debt, and high monthly shortfalls too.

The charity also found higher levels of anxiety among these groups compared to the general population. 55% of disabled people say they’re very or fairly worried about affording their energy bills in the next six months. And 77% of single parents said they are very or fairly worried about paying for energy as we head towards December.

Citizens Advice says even households with an annual income of £29k are being stretched to meet increases in prices and will face choices such as choosing between heating or eating this winter.

Dame Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“What we saw last winter must never be repeated. Struggling households unable to pay their energy bills, people unable to top up their prepayment meter, and record numbers coming to us for crisis support.

“With increasing numbers of peple we help facing a negative budget, where they simply don’t have enough to cover their essential bills, there is a real risk this winter will be worse. 

“The government should look seriously at stepping in with additional bill support to help people through the winter.”

Notes to editors

  1. Citizens Advice is made up of the national charity Citizens Advice; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.
  2. Our network of charities offers impartial advice online, over the phone, and in person, for free.
  3. Citizens Advice helped 2.55 million people face to face, over the phone, by email and webchat in 2021-22. And we had 40.6 million visits to our website. For full service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.
  4. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 18,500 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 service outlets across England and Wales.
  5. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0808 223 1133 or 0808 223 1144 for Welsh language speakers.