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Multiple Debts and Fuel Costs: A Review of the Literature and a Survey of Citizens Advice Bureau Clients

University of Northumbria
Date: 1999


Evidence from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB) suggested that fuel poverty was a major issue among their clients, many of whom struggled with multiple debts. There was an assumption that not only did fuel costs form a significant proportion of the overall sums owed among clients in debt, they were also a driver of debt in other areas. Furthermore, there appeared to be an association between fuel poverty and problems in other areas such as health.  

Key research Question

The study aimed to design a research method that could test these assumptions through a rigorous analysis of a cohort of Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) clients experiencing multiple debts. It also reviewed past and current literature to ascertain to what extent the assumptions were supported by previous research. 

Summary of activity

A questionnaire was co-designed by CAB and the Social Welfare Research Unit and delivered by advisors at 29 CABs in North East England in 1996/7. Seventy-six clients were surveyed, each in separate households.  


More than half of all the households surveyed were in receipt of state benefits as the main source of household income. General levels of debt were considerable: one-third of the households owed over £5,000 (mortgages not included), and over half experienced persistent debt.  

Approximately two-thirds of the households in the sample paid for fuel via some form of budget scheme, including 28% who used a prepayment meter. Most respondents said they had not had the option to access Fuel Direct; only nine were currently on it, with payments ranging from £12.50 to £20.50 per week – much higher than recommended levels and causing pressure on household budgets. 

Only half of the sample supplied an answer as to whether they were in debt to an energy company. Of those who did, electricity debts averaged £80 and gas debts £180. Thirty-one households had borrowed money to pay fuel bills, mainly from friends and family. Fuel debt commonly occurred after an existing payment scheme to address arrears collapsed. 

CABs formed the first point of contact for receiving information and advice, although around half of respondents had proactively contacted their energy supplier as soon as they got into arrears. One-third had heard of home improvement schemes designed to boost energy efficiency, but only five households had benefited from the national Home Energy Efficiency Scheme. Over half the sample lived in social housing, and basic measures such as double glazing and cavity wall insulation were absent in the majority of homes, with a quarter reporting serious issues with damp. 

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