A new report from Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) calls on suppliers and regulators to better target help for people who have difficulty meeting the ever rising costs of heating their homes. With household energy bills now double what they were in 2004; CAS says that energy companies and the Scottish and UK Governments must do more to support struggling consumers.
The report finds that in the financial year 2011/12 a total of 7,400 Scots came to their citizens advice bureau (CAB) for help with 9,500 energy issues. Almost 40% of these clients came to bureaux for help with energy debts, with 83% of them saying they were having problems making payments.
Analysis of clients with energy debts shows that they are more likely than the average CAB client and the wider population to be young, single white females with caring responsibilities, living in social rented housing. They are also likely to be unemployed or too ill to work and their main source of income is likely to be from benefits.
The report calls on energy companies to take a number of steps to help customers who are struggling to pay their bills. These include:
- fixing prepayment meters at the cheapest tariff the company offers;
- taking into account problems faced by customers whose only income is from benefits, particularly in light of welfare changes;
- notifying customers of arrears as early as possible and establishing affordable repayment plans
CAS is also calling on the governments in London and Edinburgh to better target support for vulnerable consumers in light of the report’s findings.
CAS Policy Officer Sarah Beattie-Smith, who compiled the report, says:
“The evidence from Citizens Advice Bureaux across Scotland clearly shows that the high cost of energy is causing huge problems for people across the country. CAB advisers see people every day who are forced to choose between heating and eating. We know that difficulty paying for energy can make other problems worse, pushing people into debt, worsening existing health conditions and adding to the stresses and strains of everyday life at a particularly difficult economic time.
“CAS will now be contacting the energy companies with our findings and will be seeking to discuss the measures they can take to help their customers. We recognise that energy companies and governments here in Scotland and at UK level have already taken some very welcome steps to support consumers who have trouble meeting the high costs of energy.
“However more can and must be done to help Scots heat their homes this winter and in years to come.”
Notes to editors - click to expand/collapse
- The full list of recommendations are on p8-9 of the report which can be found here.
- The Executive Summary on p5 states: By 2011/12, the average annual household energy bill was double what it had been just eight years earlier. At £1250 per year, and set to top the £1500 mark within the next three years, the cost of heating and electricity is an increasing worry for consumers across Scotland.
- In addition, the Scottish Government estimates that around a third of all Scottish households are in fuel poverty, spending more than 10% of their disposable income on heating their home to an adequate temperature.
Against that back drop then, it comes as no surprise that demand for advice and support on energy issues remains high amongst Scottish consumers. The Scottish CAB Service helped nearly 7,400 people with 9,500 different energy issues in 2011/12.
- The energy advice and support given by CAB advisers secured an estimated £211,470 of financial gain for clients over the year. This financial gain relates to a wide range of actions by bureaux, from ensuring clients are claiming support they are entitled to such as the Warm Homes Discount, to ensuring clients are on the best tariff for them and accessing services such as free insulation and discounted central heating.
- The number of issues brought to bureaux in 2011/12 was slightly down on 2010/11, when the service supported clients with 10,400 issues. This can be partly explained by changes in recording but also by the particularly harsh winter of 2010/11 compared with the following year.
Key changes from 2010/11 to 2011/12
The proportion of issues raised within the fuel debt category where clients were having difficulty paying rose from 80% to 83%. In addition, complaints about charges in the non-regulated fuel sector (oil and coal) were up 4.5% on the previous year and enquiries about the Energy Assistance Package were up 5.6% within the regulated fuel category (gas and electricity).
Meanwhile, billing and meter reading problems fell as a proportion of total issues within the regulated energy sector, indicating that energy suppliers may be improving their systems. In the non-regulated sector, issues around suppliers’ handling of complaints and issues concerning delays in supply both fell as a proportion of total issues from 2010/11 to 2011/12.