The number of people seeking help because they cannot afford both food and energy has more than tripled in a year, according to new data that highlights the increasingly difficult choices faced by households between heating and food.
The figures, released by Citizens Advice, lay bare the hardship caused by soaring household energy costs, which charities say are driving millions of people into fuel poverty.
The cap on average household gas and electricity bills in the UK – set by energy regulator Ofgem – is set to climb in October from £1,971 to £3,500, according to forecasts published last week.
The level of the cap will be revealed on August 26 and further increases are possible in January. This prompted a clamor for more government and support from the two Conservative leadership candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. But the new data shows that the number of people struggling to eat and pay for energy has already increased, even before the new cap took effect.
Between April and June last year, 297 people contacted Citizens Advice for help with both food bank referrals and money to top up their coin-operated energy meter. During the same period of 2022, the number of people with both conditions jumped to 1,002, a 237% increase in the space of a year.
Morgan Wild, policy manager at Citizens Advice, said the figures were “really shocking”. “These are people who literally can’t afford to keep their lights on or put food on the table,” he said.
The painful energy costs are partly due to Russia cutting gas flows to Europe, amid the current stalemate over the war in Ukraine, sending gas markets soaring.
Given the expected rise in the energy price cap, the charity National Energy Action (NEA) has added half a million households to its estimate of those facing energy poverty – defined as spending more than 10% of their income in energy. The charity, which advises people on how to manage energy bills, now predicts that 8.7 million households, more than one in three in the UK, will end up in fuel poverty a when the next price cap comes into effect in October.
NEA said the choice between food and energy is not the only one imposed by poverty. “Some people choose between food and life-saving medical equipment like oxygen machines,” said NEA policy and advocacy director Peter Smith.
He said the £400 rebate on government bills was “welcome” but insufficient, given that it was introduced in May when energy prices were expected to be much lower. “The new Prime Minister must act, and act urgently, to save millions of people from the potentially catastrophic winter ahead.”
Data from Citizens Advice also highlights how the cost of living crisis is disproportionately affecting particular groups of people, including those with disabilities or long-term health conditions.
In 2014, 45,842 people with disabilities or long-term health conditions contacted Citizens Advice for help with issues other than the cost of living, compared to 32,445 who were struggling to pay their bills.
But the cost of living took precedence over all other issues for the first time in January 2021 and has since increased significantly for people with disabilities, unlike the rest of the population.
Citizens Advice said this was likely partly due to a backlog in the system for allocating personal independence payments, which replaced disability benefit in 2017.
The data also showed above-average references to food banks among single people and those living in social housing. Referrals among singles, including during childhood, increased much faster than among couples, while there was also a pronounced increase among social tenants.
Citizens Advice pointed out that projections of monthly energy bills of £500 in January mean the cost of heating and electricity could exceed the average of £420 spent on social rent in London for the first time.