Sylvia Ward, Chief Executive, Citizens Advice Sheffield

Citizens Advice Sheffield: Support during the cost of living crisis

12 October 2022

It’s almost impossible to watch or read the news now without seeing something about the cost of living crisis. We’ve all seen the price of food and petrol go up, inflation reach levels not seen in a generation and benefits fail to keep pace.

We also recently saw the cost of energy go up for households across the UK, again. Despite some welcome government intervention, energy bills are now double what they were this time last year, and that means difficult choices for many people. It also means increased anxiety and stress – including for people already experiencing severe mental ill-health who were already likely to be spending a higher proportion of their income on energy costs.

At Citizens Advice Sheffield we’re already seeing this through our specialist mental health advice service and the weather is only just starting to turn colder.

Sadly, even hospital inpatients aren’t protected. ‘Sam’ (not his real name) is currently in hospital under a Section 2 (of the Mental Health Act). He has a pre-payment meter but now he’ll be struggling to make his budget stretch to cover the increased rates. But that’s not all. Despite being in hospital, Sam is still incurring a daily standing charge (which has gone up significantly) meaning he’ll return home to an energy debt of at least £50 on each of his meters that he’ll need to re-pay before he even starts heating his home.

For those living in their own homes, the complicated nuances of the benefits system can bring challenges too. We’re supporting one Sheffield couple where the rules on age mean that since only one person is of pensionable age, the couple receive Universal Credit rather than Pension Credit – leaving them financially worse off and increasing their struggle with the cost of living.

Specialist services make a difference

Fuel costs come up in every conversation we’re having now about people’s finances and it’s clearly increasing anxiety levels. Across the Citizens Advice Network, by the end of August, we’d already helped almost as many people with energy issues as we did in the whole of 2021. 

There is clear evidence that people with mental health problems have significantly lower average incomes than those without, meaning that they will be disproportionately affected by the cost of living crisis. Easy, routine access to advice as an integral part of their care can ensure people are receiving their full benefits entitlement and can tackle their debts at an early stage. Even so, we are seeing more people now with negative budgets, where even after all debt and benefits issues are addressed, they still don’t have enough to get by.

More action is needed from government

We know an energy bill freeze isn’t going to be enough to ensure vulnerable people don’t have to spend this winter in cold homes, wondering how to feed themselves or their families. The government has to go further and provide targeted support. The best way of doing that is to ensure that benefits keep pace with living costs.

It’s important to seek help

You’ll have heard people talk about an average household energy bill of £2,500 – but it’s important to know that’s an average and not the maximum amount for your bill. If you use more energy you’ll pay more, if you use less you’ll pay less. From this month, you’ll also get £400 off your energy bill, which for most people should happen automatically without you needing to take action.

If you’re struggling to pay your energy bills, talk to your supplier – they have a duty to help you. Support is also available from your local Citizens Advice, who can also explain how to claim the additional targeted support for disabled people and pensioners.

We were delighted to have Sylvia speak at our event this summer, for the launch of our research report No one left behind. Responding to our research – which shows the huge impact where you live has on your mental health and finances – Sylvia shared insights gained leading Citizens Advice Sheffield. Learn more about the event and our report in our recap blog here

If you’re in need of support with your finances or mental health, you’re not alone and help is out there. We’ve put together a list of organisations ready to help here.