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Two million households in the red on energy bills

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Written by: Emma Lunn
16/12/2020
The number of energy customers in debt to their supplier has increased to 2.1 million, 600,000 more than in February, according to Citizens Advice.

The charity’s research found that a quarter of all energy customers (up to 7 million households) worry they won’t be able to pay their bill this winter.

According to data the charity has obtained from large and medium energy suppliers, the size of debts is significant. The average amount owed by those who haven’t come to a repayment arrangement with their supplier is £760 for electricity and £605 for gas.

Support for customers ‘working well’

The charity’s research shows that on the whole, the support that has been put in place by suppliers to help customers is holding up relatively well.

Six in 10 (59%) people in financial difficulty who spoke to their supplier said the support options they were offered were helpful, with just 16% disagreeing.

Citizens Advice says that as people struggle to pay their bills, customer service and being able to access support from suppliers will be more crucial than ever.

The charity is urging energy suppliers to maintain customer service standards as well as continuing to provide support to their customers as we enter the coldest months of winter. But its report raised concerns that people are struggling to contact their supplier.

Call wait times are increasing, while many suppliers make finding phone numbers difficult. The charity warns that these barriers may prevent people who are in financial difficulty from accessing the support available.

Additional support needed

Citizens Advice is urging suppliers, Ofgem and the government to maintain and expand existing support and customer service measures.

It says suppliers should ensure customers can get in touch quickly and easily, including by telephone. Firms should continue to offer additional support through the duration of the pandemic, including payment holidays or temporary prepay credit.

The charity also called upon the government to ensure there is adequate support for the hardest hit households this winter, through fuel vouchers or extra funding to support those people not covered by existing schemes such as the Covid Winter Grant.

Alistair Cromwell, acting chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “The government and the energy industry have put in place significant measures to support people’s incomes and help those struggling with their bills. This has made a real difference to many, but this effort will be undermined if people can’t get through to their suppliers and access that support in the first place.

“We’re heading into the coldest months of the year and the full financial impacts of the pandemic are still to be felt. Maintaining high customer service standards is more critical than ever in order to make sure energy customers who get into difficulty can access the support they need.”

Peter Earl, head of energy at Compare the Market, said: “It is extremely rare for people to have their energy supply cut because they have fallen into arrears on payment, which should reassure energy customers concerned that this could happen during one of the coldest months of the year and less than two weeks before Christmas Day.

“Nonetheless, falling into arrears on bill payments can be daunting for households that are struggling financially, so it is encouraging that many people finding themselves in this situation are praising the support they received from their supplier. Our own research indicates that 29% of all households are probably not in a financial position to be able to meet the cost of higher energy bills this winter.”

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