The latest figure for CPI was 10.1% in January, down from 10.5% in December 2022. UK inflation falls but remains near a 40-year high and in double digits. In response, the Bank of England has increased interest rates to 4%, the highest level for 14 years. People in Stevenage now face huge amounts of uncertainty with the cost-of-living crisis. The crisis will extend far beyond April 2023, leaving people worried about bills they cannot afford. Cutting back on bill support in April will create a financial cliff edge for millions of households that needs to be addressed. People on benefits are already struggling to keep up with living costs. If benefits don’t rise with inflation, it will be another huge blow, making it harder for them to stay afloat. Backtracking on promises made about support is going to cause huge amounts of worry to people, when they need certainty, they can keep the lights and the heating on. The government must act now and prioritise households on low incomes and benefits, a group already at crisis point.
The rate at which prices are rising has dropped back slightly, although households are still under pressure. People make more and more difficult decisions about what to cut back on and where they need to rely on community support because they don't have enough to live on. Twice as many people are asking for advice on their energy bills and seeking support with food banks and benefits compared to last year. People coming to Citizens Advice in Stevenage can't afford to top up their prepayment energy meter, and therefore can't do the basics like turning on their fridge or heating their hob. By the end of September, we'd seen more people in this situation than the whole of the previous three years combined during the pandemic.
The energy price crisis has been unprecedented. That fact is stark in our data*. By the end of September, we’d already helped more people with energy issues than we did for the whole of last year. Our insights suggest that some people and families in Stevenage could be forced onto a prepayment meter by the end of the year because they can’t afford their energy bills. Under current rules, energy companies can push someone onto a prepayment meter when they can’t pay their bills. This means they have to ‘top up’ in advance to keep the lights and heating on. People who pay-as-they-go for their energy are at particular risk in the winter months because they can’t spread the cost across the year, like direct debit customers. Furthermore, draughty and inefficient homes mean people living in properties with an energy performance rating of F are losing £950 worth of the heat they pay for a year through their walls, windows, and roof.
Citizens Advice Stevenage is sadly continuing to see huge demand for its services and referring record-breaking numbers of people to crisis support*, such as food bank referrals and access to grants because they simply can’t pay the bills or put food on the table. More than 400 people in Stevenage have contacted us for this type of support since January. This means we are seeing more people in hardship and more people falling deeper into hardship.
People in Stevenage are particularly seeking support on Personal Independence Payment, charitable support & food banks, Council Tax Reduction, Council Tax arrears, and financial capability-related issues*. Many people coming to us are those on the lowest incomes or who can’t work because of a disability, health condition, or caring responsibility. They’re already struggling to keep up with rising costs. If benefits don’t keep up with inflation, then it’ll be a devastating real terms cut. The number of people being threatened with, or facing, homelessness is another indicator of crisis. By the end of September 2022, we had helped more people with a homelessness issue than we had by the same point in the previous three years*. Also, in September we saw continued growth in the number of people coming to our cost-of-living pages on our website, especially for 'Grants and benefits to help you pay your energy bills', suggesting growing money worries.
At the same time, we can only see demand for our services going through the roof. This unprecedented pressure on our services means that our staff and volunteers are going the extra mile to keep up with demand and support as many people in our community as possible.
During this time of crisis and uncertainty, what I want to highlight is that people in Stevenage are not alone and there is plenty of support, depending on their circumstances, but the important thing is to seek support. Our goal at Citizens Advice Stevenage is to help everyone, whoever they are, and whatever their problem.
Our website has lots of helpful information and tools to help people find a way forward. Use the “Contact us” form on our website and receive a response within 3 working days. Alternatively, call our Adviceline on 0800 144 8848. We have extended our Adviceline opening hours to cover evenings and Saturdays, meaning that you can call us when it suits you! Our Adviceline is available Mon - Wed 10am to 9pm, Thu & Fri 10am to 8pm and Sat 10am to 4pm. Calls to Adviceline are free from mobiles and landlines.
*To read our full report on the cost-of-living crisis, click here