Bid to help consumers plug energy bill debt

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A CAMPAIGN to help people who find themselves falling behind with their energy bills was launched this week, amid fears that further price hikes will push more people into the red this winter.

The Plug the Debt campaign was launched by Consumer Focus and Citizens Advice and supported by other bodies such as Ofgem and Age UK.

Campaigners said that following energy price increases of around 7 per cent last winter and other rising costs, the number of people with new energy debts increased by over a quarter for electricity and a fifth for gas in spring 2011.

They said the most recent figures showed that in Britain more than 850,000 electricity customers and over 700,000 gas customers are in debt to their energy supplier.

A statement from campaigners said: “Consumer Focus and Citizens Advice believe that average energy price increases of 14 per cent this autumn could push even more vulnerable households over the edge into debt.

“Last year 100,000 people came to Citizens Advice for help with their fuel bills and this year, in October alone, over 12,500 people sought online advice on cutting their fuel bills from the Citizens Advice website.”

New research found that more than half of Britons are worried about being able to afford their energy bills this winter. One in six people plans to only heat half, or less, of the rooms in their house.

Almost a third of people (29 per cent) would not trust their supplier to help them if they got into debt. Fewer than half (49 per cent) are aware their energy firm has to take their circumstances and ability to pay into consideration when arranging repayments of outstanding bills.

Almost one in five (19 per cent) believes their supplier could name any amount and they would have to pay it.

Mike O’Connor, chief executive of Consumer Focus, said: “A toxic cocktail of higher energy prices, rising bills for other essentials and falling incomes could push more people into debt with their energy company this winter.

“We want people to know that help is out there. Your supplier has to help you if you have problems affording your bills and there are discounts and grants available to help you lower your costs.

“We’d urge people to get in touch with their energy firm as soon as they think they might have problems before debts start to spiral.”

Energy minister Charles Hendry said: “I wholeheartedly support the Plug the Debt campaign.

“Recent energy price rises in combination with other rising costs mean many household budgets are under huge pressure, so it’s more important than ever that consumers who are at risk of falling behind on their bills know what their rights are and what help is available.”