Britain's second biggest energy company has seen customers' overdue bills soar by nearly a third in the past year as they struggle to cope with its price hikes.
Buried deep in yesterday's financial accounts for the year to the end of March, SSE admitted that what it euphemistically called "total aged debt" – customers who are more than six months in arrears – shot up to £118m from £90m a year earlier.
SSE made overall profits before tax during the period of £1.55bn – up nearly 10 per cent on the previous year and equivalent to £3000 a minute.
The bad debt figures highlighted how millions of households across the country are struggling to keep up with their energy bills following repeated price rises. The problem looked especially stark at SSE because it came during a year in which customers dramatically reduced how much energy they were using due to high prices and mild winter weather.
SSE refused to say how many households and businesses were overdue on their bills, although recent figures from uSwitch suggested average debts for those behind on payments are around £128, suggesting as many as 4m households are in debt.
Neil Duncan-Jordan, a spokesman for the National Pensioners Convention, said: "Pensioners are the hardest hit by the price rises that come in year after year. These figures from SSE show the Government has not got it right on making energy affordable."
Clare Welton, a spokeswoman for Fuel Poverty Action, said: "With a government and ineffective regulator that simply want to tinker at the edges of our broken energy system, the Big Six energy companies will continue their profiteering business-as-usual while fossil fuels become increasingly expensive, resulting in an even deeper debt crisis."
Customers' debts meant SSE had to take a charge to the accounts of £67.8m. In its accounts it blamed the "increase in the cost of energy" and "a backdrop of continued pressures on disposable incomes."
A spokesperson said: "SSE does everything it can to help customers who are struggling with their energy bills, including establishing tailored payment arrangements based on their ability to pay. We also wark closely with organisations like Citizens Advice to help people in hardship."
Amid criticism that the company was making huge profits from high energy bills, SSE stressed that its retail business saw its profits fall 29 per cent during the year, and claimed healthy competition had sent 370,000 of its 9.4m customers leaving for other suppliers. Much of that switch came after price hikes - SSE put its prices up by 8.2 per cent last November.
It then froze prices until 2016 after the Government bowed to industry pressure to reduce the burden of environmental costs. British Gas owner Centrica followed with a pledge not to raise prices this year.
Yesterday SSE said its huge profit growth was due to the success of its networks business, which includes the Scottish Hydro Electric and Southern Electric power distribution and wholesale arms. These divisions saw profits jump 9 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.
Mark Todd, whose Energyhelpline.com business runs price comparison websites, said: "It may be more politically acceptable to make profits in these other areas away from the sharp end, but it all ends up on customers' bills."
The figures followed a year of turmoil for the energy industry as politicians turn up the heat on the sector in the wake of Labour leader Ed Miliband's bid to impose a price freeze on bills.
The companies are also facing a new investigation from the Competition and Markets Authority.
SSE increased its full-year dividend by 3 per cent to 86.7p a share – totalling £845m.