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Covid drives over half a million people into the red on energy bills

16 Rhagfyr 2020

New research from Citizens Advice shows that 2.1million households are behind on their energy bills, 600,000 more than in February. 

The charity’s research also reveals a quarter of all energy customers - that’s up to seven million households - worry they won’t be able to pay their bill this winter.

According to data the charity has obtained from large and medium energy suppliers, the size of debts is significant. The average amount owed by those who haven’t come to a repayment arrangement with their supplier is £760 for electricity and £605 for gas. 

Support for customers is holding up

The charity’s research shows that on the whole, the support that has been put in place by suppliers to help customers is working relatively well for those who have been able to access it.

59% of people in financial difficulty who spoke to their supplier said the support options they were offered were helpful - just 16% disagreed. 

As people struggle to pay their bills, customer service and being able to access support from suppliers will be more crucial than ever. The charity is urging energy suppliers to maintain customer service standards as well as continuing to provide support to their customers as we enter the coldest months of winter. 

Customer service and support more critical than ever

The research is released alongside Citizens Advice’s latest energy star rating - which grades energy suppliers based on their customer service. 

While customer service and the support for customers is holding up, the charity’s research and star rating shows some areas of concern.

People are struggling to contact their supplier, call wait times are increasing, while many suppliers make finding phone numbers difficult. These barriers may prevent people who are in financial difficulty from accessing the support available.

The charity’s research found that:

  • One in seven people who tried to contact their supplier said they couldn't get through

  • Call waiting times for two thirds of suppliers have increased

  • On average, suppliers are failing to respond to a third of customer emails within two working days

More still to do

The charity is urging suppliers, Ofgem and the government to maintain and expand existing support and customer service measures:

  • Suppliers should ensure customers can get in touch quickly and easily, including by telephone 

  • Suppliers should continue to offer additional support agreed with BEIS through the duration of the pandemic, including payment holidays or temporary prepay credit

  • Government should ensure there is adequate support for the hardest hit households this winter, through fuel vouchers or extra funding to support those people not covered by existing schemes like the Covid Winter Grant

Alistair Cromwell, Acting Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“The government and the energy industry have put in place significant measures to support people’s incomes and help those struggling with their bills. This has made a real difference to many, but this effort will be undermined if people can’t get through to their suppliers and access that support in the first place.

“We’re heading into the coldest months of the year and the full financial impacts of the pandemic are still to be felt. Maintaining high customer service standards is more critical than ever in order to make sure energy customers who get into difficulty can access the support they need.”

Notes to editors

  1. All figures taken from the report Recovery, or Ruin? and Citizens Advice Energy Star Rating. Sources include:
    1. Tracker survey - Accent Research for Ofgem/Citizens Advice, Consumer Perceptions of the Energy Market (Q3 2020), representative sample of 3,202 adults in Great Britain. The ‘nearly seven million households’ statistic is based on a sample of 1,538 adults. There is a margin of error of  +/- 2.1% around our result 24.3% (6.6 million). This means the result could lie between 22.2% and 26.4% (between 6.0 million and 7.1 million)
    2. 2.1 million households figure from ICM Unlimited for Citizens Advice, November 2020, representative sample of 6,004 adults living in the UK.
    3. Information provided by suppliers - as the statutory consumer watchdog Citizens Advice has powers to request information from suppliers
  2. Citizens Advice star rating (July-September 2020) compares energy suppliers' customer service by looking at information from a number of sources. Information about complaints comes from the Citizens Advice Consumer Service, the Energy Help Unit and Energy Ombudsman. Citizens Advice uses its legal powers to request information on customer service, billing and switching from suppliers. Information on customer guarantees comes from Energy UK. Energy suppliers are given a score out of 5 for each category. 1 is poor and 5 is excellent (a zero score is given if a supplier does not provide the necessary data). Suppliers then receive an overall star rating out of 5. Not all categories are equal with some counting more towards the final score than others. Further information on the methodology can be found here.

  3. Citizens Advice includes the national charity; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.

  4. Citizens Advice is the statutory consumer advocate for energy and post. We provide supplier performance information to consumers and policy analysis to decision makers.
  5. The Citizens Advice Witness Service provides free, independent support for prosecution and defence witnesses in every criminal court in England and Wales.
  6. Citizens Advice offers Pension Wise services at 500 locations in England and Wales.
  7. Citizens Advice’s services are free, independent, confidential and impartial, and available to all regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  8. To get advice online or find your local Citizens Advice, visit citizensadvice.org.uk
  9. For consumer advice, call the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0808 223 1133 or 0808 223 1144 to talk in Welsh.
  10. We helped 2.6 million people face to face, by phone, email and webchat in 2017-18. For service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.
  11. Citizens Advice staff are supported by over 23,000 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 locations in England and Wales.