AT THIS time of year, the profits posted by the “big six” energy suppliers attract widespread attention from the media, politicians and consumers alike.
In recent weeks political pressure on the regulators has also ramped up – with calls for radical reform and referral of the energy market to the Competition and Markets Authority.
The long campaign to end the poverty premium – where people, often those on the lowest incomes, pay for their energy use by cash, cheque or pre-payment meter and are charged more than those paying by direct debit – was backed by 200 MPs in a motion calling for Ofgem to launch an inquiry.
Concerns are also being voiced about the impact of the Energy Companies Obligation on investment in energy efficiency and fuel poverty measures.
In the past three years, the big six have raised their prices by 37 per cent – three times the rate of inflation – and the average UK energy bill is now £1,400.
It is estimated that over a quarter of Scottish households are now in fuel poverty. This means they are spending more than 10 per cent of their income to achieve an adequate level of warmth.
The criticism aimed at suppliers does not stop at spiralling prices and the scale and depth of fuel poverty. Confidence in customer service – from billing errors to switching issues – is at an all-time low.
According to a recent survey by Which? the big six received a staggering 5.5 million complaints last year.
Whilst politicians and commentators debate the problems, causes and solutions, more needs to be done to support consumers to deal with the variety of energy issues they are experiencing now – including unaffordable repayment plans and navigating the complex array of information designed to help consumers to switch.
It’s important that people know what practical help is out there – and much of it can be accessed from your local Citizens Advice Bureau.
Across our five bureaux and 17 outreach locations in Edinburgh, we see many people who are worried about paying their gas and electricity bills. Fuel poverty is a key concern that people bring to our service, and the demand for advice on energy issues is rising.
From April 2013 to January 2014, the number of people accessing our services for help with fuel arrears increased by a staggering 53 per cent compared with the same period in 2012-13.
For many people, years of sharp energy price increases and the enduring issue of poorly insulated homes have been compounded by unemployment, delays to benefits processing, benefits sanctions and increased food costs.
The choice between heating and eating is the stark reality for many families and individuals – with the added burden of increasing levels of fuel debt that they are not in a position to repay.
However, if you or someone you know is struggling with energy issues, we can help.
Our charity is based on the principle of citizens advising citizens. We provide a safety net that works. Our volunteers and staff can give you up-to-date information about the financial help available and offer practical support to deal with fuel arrears.
We can help you to negotiate with suppliers and arrange affordable repayment plans. We can give you information about the energy efficiency schemes available so you don’t have to use as much energy to heat and light your home. We can also help you find a better energy deal and assist you with information about the switching process – which could save you hundreds of pounds a year.
As well as assisting with energy problems, we offer free, confidential and impartial advice on employment problems, healthcare concerns, debt, housing issues, benefits entitlement and disability issues.
In April, the UK government transfers responsibility for speaking out for consumers on energy, post, and water to Citizens Advice Scotland, and for energy and post to Citizens Advice England and Wales.
Citizens Advice Scotland is also taking on a referral helpline – the Extra Help Unit – for people with complex energy or post complaints or who are at risk of having their energy cut off.
This is good news for consumers but, as the energy debates rage on, if you are worried about your energy bills or need practical advice on how to make ends meet please come and see us.
• Moira Tasker is chief executive of Citizens Advice Edinburgh www.citizensadviceedinburgh.org.uk