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Last Updated: Monday, 15 September, 2003, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Millions struggle with utility bills
Millions are deep in debt with water bills
Millions of Britons are in debt or struggling to afford essential services, such as water, energy and a home telephone line, according to new research.

More than three million people are struggling with energy bills, 4.7million are in debt to their water company and more than one million have had their phone cut off, said the National Consumer Council.

Every winter an extra 20,000 to 50,000 people die because their homes aren't warm enough - one of the highest incidences of cold-related winter deaths in Europe, the consumer organisation said.

Many people are forced to delay paying their energy bills, thereby storing up problems for later - and the NCC wants more action from the government to recognise the problem.

Water bills

Poor people can pay up to 182 a year more for gas, the consumer group said.

So severe is the problem that some people resort to using candles instead of lights, not using the oven, burning rubbish in the fireplace and sleeping in the living room to save on heating
Deirdre Hutton

This is because consumers who have poor credit histories can find it almost impossible to switch supplier - and benefit from savings.

Some of the poorest customers can also pay more for their energy, because some pre-payment meters can be much more expensive than post-payment schemes.

Many people find they are disconnected, because they can not afford to pay.

Each year thousands of men are unaware they are eligible for the winter fuel payment from the age of 60

Last year, 23,000 households in England and Wales were disconnected from their energy supplies.

An estimated further 1.4 million disconnected themselves, for fear of running up bills they couldn't pay.

Water bills

Almost five million people are worried about their water bills.

In total, they owe 781m - an average of 166 - with many saved from disconnection only because companies cannot cut off the water, the NCC said.

Sometimes disconnection will push people further into the red, because of high reconnection fees.

The one million households who are disconnected from their fixed telephone line, because they haven't paid the bill, must go further into debt if they want the line back.

It can cost up to 75 to be reconnected.

Demand for reform
More research needed to find out what proportion of household spending on utility bills is affordable
Affordable access to good service
Reduce debt and disconnection problems through more low-cost social tariffs and better debt management programmes
Direct debit scheme available for people on benefits, and linked to basic bank account
Issue of utilities needs to be more of focus within government's social exclusion agenda

The report recommends radical action and it calls on the government to prioritise the problem.

Deirdre Hutton, NCC chairman, said: "So severe is the problem that some people resort to using candles instead of lights, not using the oven, burning rubbish in the fireplace and sleeping in the living room to save on heating.

"The current system fails the poorest because of inappropriate regulation of the privatised utility companies, an incoherent, inequitable and largely ineffective patchwork of ad hoc initiatives, and an income support system that is out of step with reality.

"We are calling for a new policy agenda for household utility services, an agenda that would make access to affordable 'lifeline' services a fundamental right."

Energy price controls disappear
01 Apr 02  |  Business
Big rise in energy complaints
11 Sep 03  |  Business
Britons 'in debt spiral'
21 May 03  |  Business
How can I manage my debt?
08 Sep 03  |  Business

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