People unable to clear energy debts as calls for Help to Repay scheme increase

One in four people with energy debts (24%) are currently unable to repay, according to new research commissioned by National Debtline.

The debt advice service is leading a coalition of 13 organisations calling on the Chancellor to introduce a ‘Help To Repay’ scheme in the Autumn Statement.

The findings, based on UK-wide research commissioned from Opinium, show that an estimated 6.4 million UK adults (12%) are behind on their energy bills heading into this winter – an increase of more than 824,000 since April.

More than one in five people (22%) say they have cut back on food and other essentials in order to keep up with energy bills (an estimated 11.6 million people). Two thirds (66%) say they will reduce how much they use the heating this winter.

Meanwhile millions of people have sold personal possessions (9%, 4.7 million), used their overdraft (7%, 4 million) and turned to high-cost credit (4%) in an effort to stay on top of rising energy costs.

The research also reveals the difficulties facing people falling behind in resolving their situation. Of those currently behind with their energy bill, 21% said their supplier had not accepted an affordable offer of repayment – and 18% had been unable to get through to their supplier when they tried to contact them to discuss the debt.

One in four (24%) say they are regularly losing sleep worrying about their energy debt.

The findings come as energy debt hit its highest-ever level of £2.6 billion, according to the energy regulator Ofgem.

A coalition of 13 organisations led by National Debtline and including National Energy Action, Scope and the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, have written to the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, urging him to introduce a ‘Help to Repay’ scheme to provide repayment matching and debt relief for unaffordable arrears.

Separate National Debtline research shows that almost three quarters of UK adults (73%) think people who have fallen into energy debt due to high prices should be given help to reduce what they owe.

David Cheadle, acting chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity
that runs National Debtline, said:
“High energy costs have left millions trapped in energy debt – and these
households urgently need support this winter. The Government now has only a limited window of opportunity to act, which is why we are calling on the Chancellor to use the Autumn Statement to step in with the help people need.

“Our Help to Repay proposal would help bring down the record £2.6 billion energy debt in the market – and offer a lifeline to people whose incomes simply will not stretch to pay off their energy arrears. It would also have the support of the general public – with 73% backing this kind of government help.

“National Debtline advisers hear every day of the toll that energy debts are taking on people’s lives and health, and the urgency of the situation cannot be underestimated. Crucially, no one needs to go through this alone. I would urge anyone struggling to cope with their energy bills to seek free, independent debt advice as soon as possible.”

Matt Copeland, head of policy and public affairs at National Energy Action, said:
“Debt levels in the energy market are at an all-time high after years of unaffordable prices. And monthly energy bills for many will be higher this winter than the last. The impact that this has on low-income households is
profound. One-third of British adults say they will struggle to pay their energy bills this winter.

Ofgem’s proposal to raise the price cap as a way of dealing with the increased debt only exacerbates the problem. Failure to provide support to reduce energy bills and energy debt would be catastrophic, leaving millions of households unable to stay warm and healthy this winter.

“A ‘Help to Repay’ scheme would accelerate debt payments, ease the burden on household budgets, and help create a more sustainable energy market.”

James Taylor, executive director of strategy at disability equality charity Scope, said:
“Winter hasn’t hit yet and already Scope’s energy helpline is being inundated with calls from disabled people facing eye-watering amounts of debt. On average, our customers have almost £1,800 worth of energy debt – more than double this time last year. That’s despite cutting back everything they can.

“Life costs a lot more for disabled people, who need more energy to power wheelchairs and breathing equipment, or have the heating on more for their health. The government must defuse this debt timebomb, bring in emergency support for this winter, and keep its promise to consider an energy social tariff which would end sky-high bills for disabled people.”

This month Ofgem announced plans to increase energy bills by £17 per household to reduce the risk of energy firms going bust or leaving the market – a decision that Fiona Waters a spokesperson for the Warm This Winter campaign called  “appalling.” Waters added:

“The government needs to put the public’s need for an affordable energy supply ahead of the demands of energy giants.”