16/11/2011

Risk Of 'Fuel Debts' Spark Campaign

A campaign to make energy customers aware of their rights has been launched as this winter brings risks of "fuel debt".

Consumer groups have come together to advise people how to deal with fuel debt, and what to do if they can't meet their bills.

Consumer Focus and Citizens Advice said they were launching a new drive to help people understand what to do and what their rights are if they fall behind on their energy bills as energy prices rise again this quarter.

The ‘Plug the Debt’ campaign was launched in response to figures that showed over 850,000 electricity customers and over 700,000 gas customers were in debt to their energy supplier in the UK.

Mike O’Connor, Chief Executive of Consumer Focus, said: "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. You can also get in touch with Citizens Advice or the Home Heat Helpline to find out how you can cut your bills."

Consumer Focus and Citizens Advice believe that average energy price increases of 14% 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 fuel debt and this year, in October alone, over 12,500 people sought online advice on cutting their fuel bills from the Citizens Advice website.

Figures from Consumer Focus research showed that over half of people in Britain are worried about being able to afford their energy bills this winter. The figure is even higher among families and older people living on low incomes, with almost two thirds concerned.

The figures also found that one in six people plan to only heat half, or fewer, of the rooms in their house this winter and one in 20 people will only be heating one or two rooms, rising to one in 10 of those in the poorest social group.

The organisations want to reassure consumers that suppliers have to, and will want to, help them if they get into trouble with their bills and urge people to contact their supplier before debts start to grow.

Consumer group Which? Said it was also supporting the campaign, and urging energy companies to become more affordable for everyone.

"We're urging the government and the energy companies to ease the pressure on consumers now by offering free insulation and making it easier for customers to switch," a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, a customer satisfaction survey by uSwitch found a steep decline customer opinion of their energy suppliers. All six of the UK’s major energy suppliers saw an overall drop in their satisfaction ratings after a year of rising energy costs, fines and widespread criticism of the energy industry.

After two price rises in under a year, which saw the average cost of energy go up by 21%, customer satisfaction dropped by 11%.

(DW)

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