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Debt crisis ‘escalates’ as demand for advice from charity rises 15%

Rebecca Goodman
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Rebecca Goodman

There was a 15% annual rise in the number of people approaching the charity Stepchange in March for advice on debts.

Stepchange says the figures are an indication of an “escalating debt crisis” during a prolonged period of high inflation.

It said it had 17,267 new clients seeking debt advice in March 2023, a 7% monthly rise from the 16,076 in February and 15% more than the 14,966 in March 2022.

Cost of living is behind debt for 26%

Around a quarter (26%) of people approaching the charity are now doing so primarily because of the cost-of-living crisis. This is a 13% annual rise and has been the leading cause of debt since June 2022, Stepchange said.

Energy arrears are also a leading reason for debt and 55% of those paying dual fuel bills were in energy arrears in March, a 4% rise since January. For gas it was 29% and electricity 27%, a monthly rise of 2% and 1% respectively.

Those figures come as the Bank of England released data today showing that the annual growth rate for consumer credit has gone up for the sixth month in a row, from 7.7% in February to 7.9% in March.

The most common form of unsecured debt being used is the credit card, held by 65% of new clients who come to Stepchange for advice.

The emergency funding page on the charity’s website was the most commonly viewed page in March, with 24,000 views, a 20% monthly increase.

Of those approaching the charity, 65% were women, unchanged when compared to February 2023 and March 2022.

‘More people will be turning to credit to make ends meet’

Vikki Brownridge, chief executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said: “During the first quarter of this year, we’ve consistently seen higher client volumes each month than during most months in 2022.

“Households faced a series of price rises across essential bills last month, and the cost of food is still significantly higher than the average rate of inflation. There’s a clear risk that without further interventions from the government, more people will be turning to credit to make ends meet, many of whom are already in arrears on their energy bills, council tax, rent and mortgage.

“To prevent problem debt from escalating further, it’s important that the government considers how to address this crisis both immediately and in the future. When someone is in debt with their energy bills and simply cannot afford to pay, targeted funding to write-off arrears should be introduced. In the longer term, a social tariff for energy would act as a permanent solution to protect financially vulnerable households from debt and fuel poverty.”