Cost of Living Crisis
"Cost of living crisis is the worst I have ever seen”
Natasha Gilmour, Head of Operational Support in the Herald on 21 January 2023.
I have worked in consumer advocacy and advice for more than 20 years and the impact this cost of living crisis is having is terrifying me.
Spiralling energy prices have plunged many people into fuel poverty who have never worried about their energy bills before, with many reaching absolute crisis point.
You’ll probably know that there are dozens of local CABs across Scotland, helping those people every day. But I want to tell you about another part of the Citizens Advice network that you may not know about: the Extra Help Unit (EHU).
The EHU is a statutory service that supports people in particularly vulnerable situations with their energy complaints. We raise complaints with energy suppliers on behalf of people who may be considered vulnerable or at risk of disconnection.
I don’t actually like the term ‘self-disconnection.’ It suggests that people make an informed choice and just decide not to have an energy supply. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Being off-supply is very distressing, particularly for vulnerable households. It often exacerbates mental and physical health conditions, as well as creating social and educational barriers.
Dealing with these kinds of extreme cases, day in, day out, is emotionally difficult for the EHU team. Indeed, this year we’ve arranged suicidal awareness and stress management training for all of our staff.
Across 2022, the EHU has been breaking records for all the wrong reasons. Since April, we’ve handled over 20,000 cases, and in August, self-disconnection cases – which is where consumers can’t afford to top up their prepayment meter (PPM) so effectively disconnect from their fuel supply - increased by over 1000% against August last year. No, that is not a typo. 1,000%.
Energy suppliers themselves have a role to play here, especially during the current crisis, and we spend time collating and analysing our casework data and feed them back to suppliers to give them a better understanding of the impact of the energy crisis on consumers. Further to this, a lifeline for our service has been our partnership with the Fuel Bank Foundation, which has enabled us to access fuel vouchers where supplier support has been exhausted.
90% of EHU clients surveyed by Accent customer research in 2022 were happy with the EHU, with over 70% saying they feel less stressed after our support.
So I’m very proud of the EHU and of the work we do as part of the CAB network, supporting those in the most extreme situations.
Over the past year the Unit has achieved the British Standard verification certificate for Inclusive Service Provision (BS 18477) for identifying and responding to consumer vulnerability. This is just one indicator of our commitment to supporting people in the best way we can.
We’re also now working with the Scottish Government’s Civtech programme to help find a technological model of triaging cases during high-demand periods, so that we can quickly and easily identify and prioritise which consumers are most in need.
We are making these changes to how we deliver services, and broadening the help we give to include income maximisation to deal with this unprecedented cost of living crisis. The scale of demand and the traumatic circumstances people find themselves in when they are referred to us are the worst I have ever seen.
Natasha Gilmour is Head of Operational Support at Citizens Advice Scotland. This article first appeared in the Herald on 21 January 2023