An estimated 5.5 million UK adults are now in energy bills debt, according to new research from the Money Advice Trust.
The latest findings confirm the heavy toll that high energy bills are taking on household finances with 2.1 million more people in energy arrears in April 2023 than in March last year and millions struggling to access help from their energy suppliers.
The figures are also more than previous data from the Warm This Winter campaign suggested earlier this year.
In the wake of the research, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition has joined forces with Money Advice Trust, StepChange Debt Charity, Warm This Winter and other organisations to ask the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero to set up a ‘Help To Repay’ repayment-matching scheme.
Campaigners believe this will provide a safe route out of debt for struggling households.
The Money Advice Trust research finds that millions more households were struggling with their energy costs in April than in March 2022, with support from energy suppliers – which is vital to help them repay arrears – proving difficult to access.
While support is available from energy providers for people who are struggling, an estimated 3.9 million people (7 percent) said they have not been able to access help for their bills after contacting their suppliers for support.
A further 3.2 million people (6 percent) reported not being able to get through and contact their supplier for help when they had tried to do so.
Joanna Elson CBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline and Business Debtline, said:
“Energy bills might finally be falling – but for millions of households, the effects of this cost of living crisis are already baked in. With more people falling behind on energy and other essential bills and millions facing unaffordable demands for repayment, we need urgent action to make sure everyone has access to a safe route out of debt.
“The government has already provided substantial support to help with the cost of living – but no-one should underestimate the scale of this continued crisis.
“The Help To Repay payment-matching scheme we are proposing will help those who otherwise will simply not be able to dig themselves out of the energy arrears that this crisis has created. And for those most in need, the government should introduce an Essentials Guarantee to link the rate of Universal Credit to cover the cost of essential goods like food and energy.”
A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition commented:
“Energy debt is surging to unprecedented levels and it’s clear that households are just unable to cope.
“The majority of this new debt is caused by the record high energy prices which have caused misery for millions, but generated excess profits for the firms involved in Britain’s broken energy system.
“Rather than end the Windfall Tax early, as the Government plans to do, it should instead look at how this could be used to help get those people suffering back on an even keel.
“Not only would this help reduce levels of fuel poverty now and into next winter, but it will also help wider household finances, ensuring people no longer have to cut back on essentials.”
Research by the University of Bristol has found only 26% of households have not had to take measures to cut back on spending and the majority of people are now taking steps to cut costs in one or more areas.
A third (35%) were not able to afford a healthy balanced diet at least once in the past month and one in five of those in serious financial difficulties had not eaten for a whole day at least three times during the last month.
Free, expert advice is available from charity-run services like National Debtline.
Full detail of the Help To Repay proposal submitted to the Government can be read online: https://moneyadvicetrust.org/media/documents/Help_to_Repay_-_Energy_arrears_scheme_proposal.pdf