‘Level of desperation is worrying’ - on the frontline of cost of living crisis

Cost of living advice

Norfolk Citizens Advice have seen the number of people contacting them about fuel debt rise by 20pc. - Credit: PA

A woman is distraught as she speaks to advisors used to dealing with people in dire straits but increasingly facing a deluge of people seeking help.

After seeing her fuel bills double and the housing association increasing her rent by £50 per month in the same week, the woman is tearful as she faces up to being left in debt without any savings or benefits to call on. 

Elsewhere, Norfolk Citizens Advice are dealing with cases of individuals turning off heating to be able to cover other bills and people unable to cook food or wash clothes. 

This is the frontline of the cost of living crisis in Norfolk. The advisers used to helping low-income families in crisis are now seeing those who previously never had a worry about paying their bills.

The woman is helped with advice on structuring payments and accessing a hardship fund to make payments this week, but remains distraught throughout the interview. 

“The level of desperation this causes is extremely worrying for long-term mental health and wellbeing, and it is increasing,” said Mark Hitchcock, Norfolk CAB chief executive.

Norfolk Citizens Advice chief executive Mark Hitchcock.

Norfolk Citizens Advice chief executive Mark Hitchcock. - Credit: Simon Parkin

“We’re seeing people help each other to cut the costs – taking their clothes to a friend or family member’s house to be washed for example. 

“We’re also hearing about people who can’t afford to cook the food they could collect from food banks.”

With eight offices around the county the debt and advice service had already seen more people seeking help over utility bills even before this month’s energy price cap increase pushing bills up £693 to £1,971 for a typical household.

Energy bill

Norfolk Citizens Advice has experienced a more than 250pc increase in people seeking help with utility bills as a ‘main issue’. - Credit: PA

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In 2021, 484 people with utility bills as a ‘main issue’ were noted, already this year they’ve seen 1,751 - a 262pc increase. 

The Norwich office has week-day morning drop-in sessions where people get advice on debt, housing and other money problems. 

But often before the doors open at 10am there is a queue despite a recent move into a larger unit in The Forum.

Those seeking advice on meter readings are up 500pc, queries about methods of payment have increased five-fold, people seeking advice about energy prices have risen 800pc, while the number applying for the warm home discount are up by 50pc.

Harry Smith, a researcher with Norfolk CAB, said: "The last quarter has seen an 18pc increase in the number of people contacting us about fuel debt, requesting food bank vouchers or support from other charities compared to the same period last year. 

Citizens Advice

Norfolk Citizens Advice are dealing with people they would not normally see due to the cost of living crisis. - Credit: Gov.uk

“The heartbreaking fact is that many people simply have nothing left in their budget they can cut back on. With food and energy prices predicted to continue to rise over the coming months many people will struggle to get by. "

Those hit hardest by soaring energy prices are low income prepayment customers facing the price cap going up by £708. Many were already in crisis and facing debt issues.

However an increasing number are households that have never had to seek help before but who find themselves fearful of being unable to pay bills amid the perfect storm of energy, fuel and shopping prices.

The latest research found 16pc of people in the region were unable to afford energy bills, even if they cut back or fall behind on other essentials

But this jumped to one in four after the energy price cap increased on April 1.

Mr Hitchcock said: “We have never had so many calls in the service, it is a record time, but we are also seeing different types of people with more general financial management advice and how to deal with specific debts in certain areas. 

People getting advice at a Citizens Advice Bureau

People getting advice at a Citizens Advice Bureau - Credit: Archant

“We are seeing people that are dropping into financial challenges and debt who haven’t been there before. 

“People finding themselves in the position of not being able to handle debt and not knowing what to do, never having had to manage finances as tightly or having to deal with court orders or debt orders.”

It is a similar picture at CAB offices in Attleborough, Dereham, Fakenham, Holt, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. They have experienced, trained advisors offering free confidential and impartial advice.

Pre-payment meter and £15k debt

The cost of living crisis has hit people already juggling complex debt issues. 

In King’s Lynn, one client was already £15,000 in debt with severe mental health issues and two children to look after. 

Their complex debt issues and fuel poverty were partly due to an inefficient, prepayment heating system that was costing £200 per month, even before the price increases. 

Woman in distress

People have been seeking help in a state of desperation over energy bills and the rising cost of living. - Credit: PA

Advisors helped with debt management, some debt reduction, a one-off fuel voucher and some hardship funding, though again this would be a one-off payment.

Mr Hitchcock added: “The advice is always to make sure you don’t ignore it, that you write down as much debt as you can and get as much information as you can.

“In some cases it might be debt relief orders, they might need personal independence payments, they might need some sort of analysis.”

• Norfolk Citizens Advice can be contacted on 0800 1448848.

• To chat with an advisor online visit citizensadvice.org.uk

• For email advice visit ncab.org.uk/email-advice-form

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