2.5m people will have to take out a loan just to afford central heating this Christmas

Shocking figures revealed as winter fuel costs are hiked by up to £120

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The Independent Online

Some 2.5 million people will have to borrow money to heat their homes this Christmas. The shock statistics are published as energy users are hit this month with winter fuel hikes of up to £120.

Research published today by affordable property group Circle Housing suggests that around seven million people will be forced to take out a loan to cover extra costs this Christmas.

While four million people say the loans will be to pay for festive food and drink, more than a third of borrowers will use the cash to pay their winter energy bills.

Worryingly, one in 20 borrowers – 350,000 - will use a payday loan while nearly 150,000 will turn to an unofficial lender or loan shark.

Faisel Rahman, the managing director of Fair Finance, a social enterprise which fights financial exclusion, said: “These figures reinforce what we are seeing on the ground as more people are using high cost credit, not for luxuries but for household essentials. While vulnerable tenants are most at risk, this report highlights how the rising costs impact all of us.”

Rather than looking forward to enjoying the festive period, one in six people said that they associate Christmas with "dread",  "worry" or "anxiety".

Matt Gaskin, financial inclusion officer for Circle Housing said: “Christmas is always a time of year that household budgets can get stretched and people start to feel the pinch. However, with the recent rises in energy bills we are more worried than ever before that people will turn to payday lenders or loan sharks, particularly some of the most vulnerable sections of society.”

A report from the Government-backed Home Heat helpline – also published today – urges more people to find out if they are eligible for help with energy costs.

The British Energy Aid Report by the New Policy Institute shows that 3.6 million British households can get heating assistance from their energy supplier this winter, with more available to those living in vulnerable areas.

For instance 41 per cent of households in Hackney are entitled to help, with 40 per cent of Newham households and 36 per cent of Liverpool homes also eligible.

Support - available on 0800 33 66 99 - includes insulation and boilers, with elderly and low income families qualifying for the £135 Warm Home Discount on energy bills.

Meanwhile independent supplier First Utility has signed an energy-buying deal with Shell that it is hoped will deliver cheaper bills and help it challenge the Big Six.

The firm, which supplies energy to 300,000, hopes it will be able to pass on savings to customers.