MILLIONS of low-income households face paying more than a third of their benefit income on gas and electricity as the energy crisis continues.
Citizens Advice is calling for extra government support as frontline staff now report helping one person every 40 seconds with a fuel debt issue.
Record wholesale gas prices have pushed up the cost of energy bills.
The energy price cap, set by regulator Ofgem to limit how much out-of-contract gas and electricity customers pay, already rose from £1,138 to £1,277 in October 2021 and is expected to rise by another £700 this April.
Around 11million households on default tariffs will see their bills increase straight away.
Citizens Advice estimates an additional 600,000 customers currently on cheaper fixed rate tariffs will see their bills rise by a further £150 when their fixed rates end in the summer.
The charity predicts that the price cap will go up again by £200 in October.
It is warning that further rises to the cap will put energy bills as a proportion of benefit levels at a generational high and tip many more into hardship.
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The charity analysed energy tariff data against historic benefits levels going back two decades.
It found that April’s estimated price cap rise will leave a single adult spending a third of their standard allowance – the basic rate of Universal Credit – on energy bills.
This could rise to 37% of the standard allowance in October.
The figures represent a historic high compared with 2002 levels which saw 14% of basic rate benefits spent on energy bills.
Millions could be affected as up to 2.1million single adults without children currently claim this basic rate of Universal Credit.
The charity’s advisers are already seeing increased calls for support.
Citizens Advice said it is receiving increasing numbers of enquiries from people facing what it describes as desperate choices because they are unable to keep pace with the soaring cost of living.
In December 2021, its consumer service supported double the number of people who’d run out of money to top up their prepayment meter, compared with the same time last year.
Nicola Duffy, energy and consumer team leader at Citizens Advice Newcastle, said: “In more than twenty years of advising, this is the worst it’s ever been.
“We’re seeing people ration their fuel, or have their emergency prepayment meter run out when they’re at least a week away from their next benefit payment.
“We supported one family whose electric was off and the food they did have in the fridge and freezer was starting to spoil.”
Citizens Advice is urging the government to provide support to help households struggling with energy bills.
It has suggested a one-off energy support grant to be paid through the benefits scheme this April and an expanded Warm Home Discount scheme.
Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “These figures confirm what we’re already seeing through our frontline services. Energy costs are eating into budgets and it’s families on the lowest incomes who’re feeling the biggest squeeze.
“With further hikes set to push bills to a generational high, disaster is on the horizon if the government doesn’t act.
“The single best way of helping low-income families weather April’s price cap rise is a one-off payment through the benefits system.
“To help avoid us being in the same situation next winter when temperatures drop and bills soar again, the government must also expand the Warm Home Discount.”
How to get help if you are struggling with energy bills
The government has said it is working on ways to help families cope with soaring energy costs.
Nothing has been confirmed yet but there are some existing support schemes for low-income families and those on benefits.
Households on pension credit or low incomes may qualify for the warm home discount scheme.
This is a one-off £140 payment to help with the cost of your electricity bill through winter.
It’s not paid to you, instead it’s a one-off discount on your bill for the period between September and March.
If the temperature drops below zero in your area between November and March, you could be entitled to £25 a week in cold weather payments.
The temperature will have to stay this low for seven consecutive days before the payment is handed out.
Eligible pensioners may also be able to access annual one-off winter fuel payments from the government of between £100 and £300.
Your local council may also be able to help with grants if you are struggling with food or energy bills through the Household Support Scheme.
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