27th November 2023
Now that winter has arrived, temperatures will fall and energy bills will rise. People are facing the most acute squeeze on living standards in recent memory. Last winter, there was a so-called energy crisis. That terminology suggests a sharp, sudden and temporary problem with an end in sight. Unfortunately, this winter may be worse than the last. Longstanding problems related to fuel poverty in Scotland, combined with upward pressure on energy costs, have caused enormous strain on household finances.
In YouGov polling commissioned by Citizens Advice Scotland, 31% of respondents said they were worried or anxious about heating their homes adequately in the coming months. Likewise, 48% of respondents identified energy bills as their most significant financial concern this winter. Behind these survey responses and CAB visits is an unfolding personal crisis. Across Scotland, people feel unable to use heat or electricity. Some will use blankets rather than radiators to stave off the cold. Others will sit in the dark instead of switching on the lights. For too many people, the grim reality is that they must skip meals to afford their energy bills. In one recent case, a single parent with mental health issues approached a CAB after a change in financial circumstances meant she could not keep up with her energy bills. Her monthly bill was £540, and she owed her supplier around £2,000. These bills, along with other financial pressures, meant this person feels forced to choose between heating and eating.
There are policy solutions that can alleviate fuel poverty. A social tariff, which is a discounted energy bill targeted at low-income households, would protect people who are struggling with exorbitant energy costs. Sceptics might ask whether such a scheme is practical or affordable. The answer to both questions is ‘yes’. Social tariffs in the energy market exist in Belgium and Ontario. They also exist in the UK telecoms market. A social tariff would cost roughly £6 billion annually, paid from taxation rather than energy bills. At first glance, that figure may seem high. Consider, however, that the UK Government spent £60 billion on the Energy Price Guarantee. This scheme lasted for just six months and is not available this winter. A social tariff is a more focused and sustainable way of addressing energy affordability.
Improving Scotland's energy efficiency is also vital for addressing high energy bills long-term. Scotland suffers from high levels of fuel poverty. Around 26% of Scottish households are in fuel poverty, and 12% face extreme fuel poverty. Enhancing energy efficiency tackles financial hardship and reduces carbon emissions.
While we hope policy makers pursue these ideas, the Citizens Advice network has launched “Worried this winter”, a campaign encouraging people who are worried about bills to seek advice. This doesn’t have to be in a CAB itself, our online advice pages are used by over 2.5 million people a year and we have interactive self-help tool like our ChatBot and MoneyMap. People can find a route to advice that suits them at www.cas.org.uk/worried. Our advisers get real results for people, with the average gain from energy advice last year being over £400 for those who saw a benefit. We’re for everyone regardless of if they are in work or own their home. As temperatures fall and bills climb, no one should be worried this winter.
Matthew Lee is a Senior Policy Officer for the Social Justice team at Citizens Advice Scotland. This article first appeared in the Herald newspaper on 25 November 2023.