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For the poorest this winter, timing is everything

4th December 2023

They say timing is everything, and for the poorest timing means higher bills now, higher incomes later.

The energy regulator Ofgem has confirmed prices will rise on January 1st, quite the New Year hangover. Meanwhile the Chancellor confirmed that working age benefits will rise in line with inflation, albeit that rise won’t kick in until the Spring.

Clearly energy companies have to start charging higher prices now, but the people scrambling to afford those bills and food for their kids need to wait for the clocks to go forward before they see their incomes increase.

Data analysis published by Citizens Advice Scotland this week found that 1 in 6 people who attended a CAB looking for advice with food insecurity also needed help with utilities. That’s a crystal clear link between people struggling to heat their homes and feed their families.

What that analysis also shows is that the majority of demand for utilities advice was from people from the poorest backgrounds, and people are increasingly turning to commercial credit to cover their essential spending – their food, their heat, their rent. And that commercial credit is likely more expensive than it was a few years ago thanks to increasing interest rates.

Meanwhile, single parent households are twice as likely to seek utilities advice as they are advice generally. The CAB network also continued to see higher levels of demand for cost-of-living related advice from single, non-pensioner households, and council rented tenants - particularly in areas such as crisis support, food insecurity, debt, and utilities.

As I say timing is everything, and so is context. These horrifying numbers? They represent demand on the CAB service over July, August and September.

If that is what it is like over the summer, what choices will people face as bills soar and temperatures plummet over the winter?

In a recent example of the type of case CABs are seeing, a disabled women in her twenties and in work phoned her local CAB looking for help after her boiler broke down. The woman already had an unaffordable energy bill on top of the broken boiler, and she wasn’t due to be paid for another fortnight. The CAB helped her with an emergency food bank referral and to fill out a crisis grant application to cover the cost of repairing the boiler.

That’s the thing policymakers need to understand – people’s circumstances are incredibly fragile. When your wages barely cover your bills, a broken down boiler is a huge emergency.

Anyone who is worried about energy bills this winter should know that the Citizens Advice network is here for them. It cost nothing to check our advice and you could end up thousands of pounds better off.  The average gain CABs delivered for energy advice last year was more than £400, the average gain for people who got advice across a broader range of issues was £3,700.

Many people get help from the CAB when they are already at a crisis point, whereas if they had received advice sooner they would have seen better outcomes. Yet again, a question of timing.

We can’t turn back the clocks and change poor decisions from policymakers, but we can encourage people to take a step forward and feel back in charge with advice that helps them understand their rights and the support that’s out there.


David Hilferty is Director of Impact for Citizens Advice Scotland. This article first appeared in the Herald newspaper on Saturday December 2nd 2023