The biggest myth about energy bills

The biggest myth about energy bills

22nd August 2023

by Christine Lang, Lead Project Co-ordinator (Energy) at CAS.

This article was first published in The Herald on 19 August 2023.

Remember the big crisis last year when the energy cap shot up and people couldn’t pay their bills? Over the winter it seemed like it was all anyone talked about. And it’ll no doubt be the same this coming winter. But at least for now, in the summer, we get a bit of a reprieve, right? Because energy bills over the summer are not really a problem. Right?

No. Not right.

Since June, nearly 4,000 people across Scotland have visited a Citizens Advice Bureau looking for support to pay their summer utility bills. In the same period last summer, there were around 2,300 such cases.

The current Ofgem price cap equates to an average bill of £173 per month. For just under 40% of people in Scotland, this is 10% of their income. The Scottish Government definition of fuel poverty is spending 10% or more of your income on fuel, so by definition, just under 40% of people in Scotland are officially in fuel poverty – not just in winter but in summer as well.

The UK government recently ended its Energy Bills Support Scheme (that gave £400 to every household) and the Warm Home Discount scheme which provides £150 to households on low incomes only provides that money in the winter. Neither of those help pay the bills in the summer..

Whilst the post-Covid economy is beginning to slowly recover, energy costs are still much higher than normal.  It’s true that we use less heating in summer, but our figures show that people are still struggling - in many cases because they still have energy debt from last winter.

As ever, we in the CAB network see the real-life cases every day.. One recent example is a woman who is unable to work due to multiple health conditions and is the sole care-giver for her son. When her electricity bill doubled from £150 to £301 per month, she really struggled to pay it. She was self-rationing her energy use, which worsened her health conditions.

Now,  the good news is that her local CAB was able to help her: we identified three benefits that she was entitled to receive but didn’t know about The Home Heating Fund awarded her a lump sum of £924, and she received £200 from a local community hardship fund. More important for the long term, we found she was entitled to a Scottish Child Payment of £100 every month. Due to all this help, she was able to reduce the monthly direct debit to a manageable rate, and is now better able to manage her finances - and her health.

I mention this case because it is a particularly positive outcome. Sometimes though, our advisers can’t help people as much as they have helped this client because not everyone is eligible for the support.

The fact we’ve had 4,000 energy bill cases this summer shows that increasing numbers of people are struggling with summer bills. And how many don’t come to us for help and are suffering in silence? 

We need to get real about this crisis. There’s no summer ‘reprieve’ and the help that exists is only available to limited numbers of people. Governments and energy suppliers need to acknowledge that and make sure crisis support is available – and extended to more people - throughout the whole year.