It may not be the barbecue summer we hoped for but here in the Citizens Advice office, the windows are open to get a breeze going and the central heating is still firmly switched off. I've almost forgotten where the boiler switch is at home. So it might seem surprising that people are people flocking to our website for tips on how to save money on their energy bills: the pages are getting 78 per cent more hits compared to this time last year.
Even for an organisation like Citizens Advice, which solves thousands of people's problems everyday and dealt with 104,000 fuel debt problems last year (many of which cited price as a major concern) that's a big jump.
It's been a bad week for energy customers. Nine million British Gas customers face prices rising by an average of 18 per cent for gas and 16 per cent for electricity. And they're not alone: Scottish Power's increase started earlier this month; Scottish and Southern Energy and Eon's are due next month; and Npower's rates will rise from 1 October. These hikes will be an extra concern for the people we already see and will no doubt drive more people into fuel debt and fuel poverty.
With affordability clearly a problem set to be compounded by these price rises, our Chief Executive, Gillian Guy, is calling on Chris Huhne to put the issue at the top of his priority list before we head into the colder months. The Government needs a coherent strategy for tackling fuel poverty to address the concerns of vulnerable customers who are worrying about how they will afford to heat their homes this winter. Energy companies need to make sure that price rises are transparent and clearly explained to customers. They also need to make sure that vulnerable customers and those in financial difficulty are treated fairly.
This is a problem more complex than many because the effect of high energy prices sees many people turn to self-rationing and self-disconnection as going without the heating they need seems like their only option to them. As the superb Marmot Review on the Health Impacts of Cold Homes and Fuel Poverty showed this makes energy prices hikes a public health issue. Professor Marmot and his team shockingly showed that Excess Winter Deaths are almost three times higher in the coldest quarter of housing than in the warmest quarter. As well as being at a higher risk of death, respiratory diseases and colds and flu, young people living in cold housing are more likely to suffer from multiple mental health problems and do less well at school than those who live in warm housing.
We know it is not impossible to make progress on these issues. Since 2008 we have been working with OFGEM on the Energy Best Deal scheme which helps people get the best deal and save money on their energy bills. Earlier this year we worked with EDF Energy to launch an Energy Debt Advice telephone service for EDF Energy customers who were struggling to pay their bills. Both of these projects show that with the right information and education for consumers, and with cooperation from the energy companies people can be helped to keep their bills down and deal with them when they do come through the letter box. And if you're worried about what's happening to your bills, get in touch with Citizens Advice, and we'll help you.
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