0452 GMT February 22, 2020
Following a round of price hikes, the amount of debt collectively owed to energy companies in the UK hit £393 million in October, an increase of almost a quarter on the same time last year, theguardian.com reported.
Fuel poverty campaigners said the figures were a reminder of the ‘huge anxiety’ many people faced this winter, worrying whether they could afford to turn the heating on.
Households are usually expected to be in credit by this time of year, ahead of the higher electricity and gas consumption to come in the colder months. But research by the consumer website uSwitch found a 10th of them, 2.93 million, were in debt to their supplier, up from 2.62 million in October 2017. They owed an average of £134 each.
Consumers have been hit by two years of price hikes as wholesale costs have gone up, with some of the big six suppliers putting up tariffs twice this year.
Rik Smith, an energy expert at uSwitch, said, “With winter just around the corner, it’s important that households use this time to tackle rising bills. After so many price rises this year a lot of people may have received a price rise notification over the summer but not switched to a cheaper deal.”
Fuel poverty groups said the government, regulators and the industry must do more to help the poorest this winter.
“Millions of people are approaching this winter with dread and will face unmanageable situations. Those who are repaying large or growing energy debts often don’t turn the heating on at all, despite knowing it could badly damage their or their families’ health,” said Peter Smith, the director of policy and research at National Energy Action.
About half of those in arrears said they would either pay it off in a lump sum or by increasing their direct debit payments. The rest either hoped the debt would “go down naturally over time”, or planned to agree a repayment plan with their supplier or fit a prepayment meter, or did not know.
uSwitch arrived at the figures by extrapolating the results of an Opinium poll of 2,000 adults to the UK’s 27 million households. Official forecasts expect fuel poverty to worsen this year because of tariffs going up.
The industry body Energy UK said, “If customers are struggling, the most important thing is to get in touch with their energy supplier as soon as possible so they can provide help and support.”