A combination of cold weather, high gas and electricity prices and mounting pressure on disposable incomes could see a substantial rise in the number of families falling into debt with energy companies, consumer groups are warning.
The alert follows a report by the energy industry regulator, Ofgem, last week, which showed large numbers of people getting behind on their gas and electricity bills.
Ofgem said that even before the winter began, more customers were getting themselves into financial difficulties. There was a 13 per cent increase in the number of electricity customers entering into a new debt arrangement with their supplier in the third quarter of last year, Ofgem said, and a 21 per cent increase in such arrangements between households and their gas suppliers.
In addition, the average level of debt of customers in difficulties was 20 per cent higher than a year previously, and there has also been a substantial increase in the number of people with debts of £600 or more.
uSwitch, the price comparison site, warned that regulators needed to take the issue of debt more seriously, but also advised customers to switch supplier more regularly in order to find the cheapest possible deals. One problem is that the customers most likely to get into financial difficulties also seem to be those who find it difficult to pay their bills by direct debit, an arrangement for which most suppliers offer discounted prices.
"The recession will have played a part, but Ofgem cannot afford to brush the cost of energy under the carpet. Energy bills are substantially higher – at £327 or more – than they were at the beginning of 2008, even after suppliers cut their prices last year, and this will have had an impact on the ability of many households to afford and pay for their energy," said Thomas Lyon, an energy expert at uSwitch. "These debt numbers could get worse as we are in the middle of a bitter winter which could add an extra £60 on to our next quarterly bills because of the extra heating and energy we have all had to use – this will hit those who pay by cash or cheque particularly hard."