Times were already hard for many before the latest cost of living crisis
StepChange Debt Charity’s 2021 Statistics Yearbook, published today, shows that even before the latest rise in general inflation and the rise in the energy price cap, households in the UK experiencing problem debt were already facing a cost of living crisis.
In 2021, StepChange was contacted by almost half a million (483,247) new clients seeking debt advice or guidance with their problem debt. The charity website received 5.9 million visits. StepChange completed full debt advice online to 105,977 clients and by telephone to 65,255 clients.
Last year, 28% of clients at the time of advice were in arrears on their electricity bill, and 23% on their gas bill. This largely reflects a continuation of the trend seen throughout the Covid pandemic period. Before Covid, in 2019, the equivalent figures were 17% and 13% respectively. StepChange expects to see a worsening of energy bill arrears over the coming months.
Council tax also remained problematic, with 37% of StepChange clients who had a responsibility to pay Council Tax being in arrears at the time they sought advice – compared to 30% in 2019, before the pandemic.
Over half (56%) of all new StepChange clients in 2021 had some form of additional vulnerability as well as their financial vulnerability. The most common forms were:
- Depression (13%)
- Stress or anxiety (13%)
- Physical disability (7%)
- Suicidal tendencies (6%)
- Domestic violence (5%)
Poor mental health remains closely associated with debt problems, and 39% of all new clients were experiencing some form of impaired mental health at the time of advice.
Geographically, London and the South East together accounted for nearly a quarter of the total number of people who turned to StepChange for help in 2021. However, the North East showed the highest incidence as a proportion of the population. Around 1 in every 250 people in the North East sought help from StepChange in 2021, compared to 1 in 333 in London.
Richard Lane, director of external affairs at StepChange, said: “It’s impossible to look at the characteristics of our clients and their debts in 2021 and not conclude that more help is needed. When so many people are already struggling to make ends meet, a steep rise in the cost of living means debt becomes inevitable for many. Debt advice services this year are going to be vital to help people navigate their best options for managing a difficult situation – but Government needs to implement better structural support, too.
“With arrears on priority bills becoming more common, 2022 is going to be a tough year for many, and not just because of energy prices. We can see that the financial impact of the Covid pandemic was still being felt among many of our clients last year, and this is now being exacerbated by cost of living pressures. If things go on as they are, we could see the proportion of our clients who have a negative budget rise from around a quarter to more like a half.
“The numbers speak for themselves. To avoid a prolonged hangover of household debt problems that will hamper society and the economy for years, the Government needs to take additional steps. A start would be central and local government pausing deductions and halting debt enforcement and the use of bailiffs where households are vulnerable and unable to pay. Government will also need to provide more targeted support this year to help the most financially vulnerable households bridge the gap between their essential costs and their incomes.”