Matthew Lee reflects on Citizen's Advice Scotland's winter messaging - as the charity gears up for another push
Our recent campaign on energy bills, Worried this Winter?, ended on Wednesday.
We’d gathered a lot of really distressing statistics for it, which you may have seen we’ve been releasing individually to the press over the last four months.
This drip-feed method of releasing stories has its advantages: it certainly created a good ongoing backdrop for our campaign. But the downside is that you only see individual snapshots one at a time, each one quickly replaced by the next. You don’t get to see the whole picture of how the issue really affects people.
Now the campaign is over I want to try and redress that by re-sharing some of those statistics with you again, showing what people told us about the extreme measures they’ve had to take to save on energy bills.
Firstly, we found that nearly a third of people in Scotland (1.4 million) regularly sit in the dark, with no TV or laptop. We already knew that people switch their heating off – nearly 3m people wrap themselves in blankets and extra layers rather than switching on the heat, and that’s certainly bad enough. But switching the lights off as well? The thought of anybody sitting without lights, while freezing as well, and risking accidents by moving around in the dark, is really distressing.
Secondly, 1.9m have cut back on eating out or going to the pub. And nearly a quarter of a million have cut spending on their children’s clothes, toys, hobbies and school trips.
Third, 22% of people said they were worried about energy debt. Demand for advice on this from the Citizen's Advice Bureau (CAB) network rose by 34% last year, over the year before. Many people can only manage to pay their energy bills by borrowing money they can’t afford to repay. That kind of debt breeds more debt and soon their situation has spiralled out of control. In December the average energy debt for people seeking complex debt advice across the Scottish CAB network was £2,307 – up nearly £500 compared to the same time last year.
The final statistic we released for our campaign shows the lengths people go to limit energy use. 185,000 people have changed their bathing habits to save on hot water – they’re sharing bathwater or showering at work or at the gym.
You might have done some of these things yourself. If not, you’ll know someone who has. Households with young children, older people and disabled people are among the most affected. People with jobs are not earning enough to live on, and our social security system isn’t providing the safety net it’s supposed to.
The Worried this winter? campaign was an attempt to raise awareness of this and to offer help to those people. Though it’s formally over now we of course still offer support on these issues. Free, confidential and impartial.
But let’s face it, even if energy bills come down to normal and the cost of living crisis ends tomorrow, those who have used credit to cope with it will still be living with the dreadful legacy of that for a very long time.
That’s why our next high profile campaign, due to start later this month, will be focused on the issue I’ve just been talking about: debt.
Matthew Lee works in the social justice team at Citizens Advice Scotland.
This column was first published in the Herald