22/01/2015 04:58 GMT | Updated 23/03/2015 05:59 GMT

Energy Companies Need to Show Some Warmth to Families in Energy Debt

As plunging temperatures sweep the country, many people escape the worst of winter by seeking the sanctuary of their cosy homes and turning the heating up.

But for huge numbers of families, this is just not an option. The prospect of regularly heating their homes is a luxury they simply can't afford.

The Children's Society's latest report, launched as part of our Debt Trap campaign, reveals that huge numbers of families with children in this country are unable to pay their energy bills because they've become ill, had changes with work, are struggling with other debts or live in damp, draughty homes.

Almost a million children in this country are living in families struggling with energy debt. Yet, too often, energy companies are failing to follow their legal obligations to help them.

We know from our work with families across the UK, just how hard living with energy debt is. Many families can only have the heating on for a couple of hours a day, or can't heat their children's bedrooms or give their children a bath regularly. But rather than getting help from their energy companies, many parents feel intimidated and are not getting the decent solutions they need.

Our research highlights how over 500,000 families with children that have faced energy debt, did not have the opportunity to negotiater the amount of money they pay back each month.

Alarmingly, we also found that four in ten of the families we surveyed who had faced energy debt felt intimidated by their energy company, with 48% of families reporting that they were not treated with respect or given the support they needed.

Families are suffering because of energy companies' damaging debt practices. Children in families that have faced this type of debt are significantly more likely to become ill in winter. Four in ten children in these families said they had trouble sleeping because their bedroom was too cold. And over half of parents facing debt on their energy bills suffer from stress, anxiety or depression.

Energy companies need to do much more to help these vulnerable families. In fact, they are already legally required to assess how much families can realistically afford to repay. They are also required to make it easy for customers to raise concerns. But in too many cases, this is just not happening.

That's why we are calling on the Government and energy companies to take the necessary steps to help families struggling with energy debt.

Urgent changes are needed to help these families. It is vital the Government changes the law so energy companies are required to treat families with children as vulnerable customers and makes sure those who have been put on pre-payment meters because they are in debt, do not pay more for their energy as a result.

It is crucial that companies negotiate affordable debt repayment plans, including monitoring them regularly to see if families' circumstances get worse. And lower or suspend debt repayment plans over winter when children's health is most at risk.

They should also review staff training procedures, targets and call scripts so that they offer families the help that they need. Energy companies should also offer a free helpline they can call from a mobile phone to raise concerns.

It is time energy companies show some warmth and work with, not against, families in energy debt and find workable solutions. No child should be made to grow up in a cold home because their family is caught in an energy debt trap.

Help protect children from the damaging effects of debt