Cost of living: ‘Do I feed the kids or do I pay my bills?’ – warnings as Leeds faces up to a winter of sky-high fuel prices

“When I first started, a lot of people were in debt perhaps due to spending choices,” said Helen Bolton who has worked in debt advice for over a decade. “There were lots of catalogue, mobile phone and payday loan debts.
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"But over the years I saw a shift, and more and more of their debts were about utilities – gas, electric, water and council tax.

“It was real evidence that people were struggling with the basics of life, rather than getting into debt because of the things that are just nice to have.”

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It’s expected to be a hectic few months for those like Helen, as energy bills and inflation are expected to hit those who need the most help.

Helen Bolton, Leeds City Debt Centre Manager for a Christians Against Poverty. (Pic: James Hardisty)Helen Bolton, Leeds City Debt Centre Manager for a Christians Against Poverty. (Pic: James Hardisty)
Helen Bolton, Leeds City Debt Centre Manager for a Christians Against Poverty. (Pic: James Hardisty)

Helen works for Christians Against Poverty, visiting Leeds residents in their homes after they have contacted the charity looking for help with their spiralling bills.

So what are her clients telling her right now?

"For some of us, the choice is ‘do I go on a holiday this year?’," she said. “But the choice for a lot of people is ‘do my kids eat or do I pay that gas and electric bill?’”

"The biggest fear is gas and electric.

Tom Eaton, associate pastor of Mosaic Church, Leeds, said it is not yet known what extent his church will have to help those in need. (Pic: James Hardisty)Tom Eaton, associate pastor of Mosaic Church, Leeds, said it is not yet known what extent his church will have to help those in need. (Pic: James Hardisty)
Tom Eaton, associate pastor of Mosaic Church, Leeds, said it is not yet known what extent his church will have to help those in need. (Pic: James Hardisty)

"We’ve had a massive increase in the number of calls in the last few weeks from people who are already desperate and can’t pay their debts back.

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"They are wondering ‘what is going to happen if I have to pay these gas and electric bills?’”

“A lot of people are just living hand-to-mouth.”

So stark are the concerns around fuel bills, that the leader of Leeds City Council has pledged to open up public buildings over the winter to give people somewhere warm to be during the day.

The Yorkshire Evening Post is joining National World sister titles across the country to call on new Prime Minister Liz Truss to take urgent action over the cost of living crisis.The Yorkshire Evening Post is joining National World sister titles across the country to call on new Prime Minister Liz Truss to take urgent action over the cost of living crisis.
The Yorkshire Evening Post is joining National World sister titles across the country to call on new Prime Minister Liz Truss to take urgent action over the cost of living crisis.

Coun James Lewis told the YEP: “We are acutely aware of the challenges facing residents ahead of this winter and as a council we are committed to doing everything we can to support residents across Leeds.

"Community hubs and libraries across the city will be open to provide a warm place for residents and visitors over the winter and we will be providing refreshments and a range of activities for people to enjoy whilst visiting alongside all the usual council services already available from our community hubs and libraries.”

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He added the authority wanted to open further centres, and would confirm when plans were in place.

While the sheer scale of help that is needed will be a shock to many, Helen is unsurprised, adding that the effects of rising bills is “colossal” on the poorest in society, compared to someone who is relatively well-off.

"There is a misconception that people are in debt because of the wrong choices they have made,” she added. "They are not. People can’t afford to have savings.

"When we see people, quite often they have just got out of control with what bills need paying.

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"Whether they are in work or out of work – a lot of people worry about whether the income will be enough to meet the essentials to pay the bills.

"Forget about the luxuries in life – if people can’t meet the essentials, how are they going to survive?”

Pastor Tom Eaton works at Mosaic Church, which has sites in Leeds City Centre and Beeston. He said his church was looking to help, but did not yet know the scale of what is likely to be needed.

“It’s quite early and it’s not quite hit yet,” he said. "There is going to be a wave of people who maybe have just made it through the past few months, and this is going to push them over the edge into debt.

"It impacts many different things.

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"During the Covid crisis, we had a care fund where we put aside some money where people could apply for money to help.

"We are looking at doing the same, but everyone’s situation is different.”

So what should be done about the crisis?

Prime Minister Liz Truss announced last week she would cap annual energy bills at £2,500, and would compensate energy firms for the difference.

Before the announcement, a typical household’s energy bill had been expected to rise to £3,549 a year.

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Many feel these measures do not go far enough, as bills for the least well off are still likely to skyrocket over the winter months.

Helen has some ideas.

"There were payments announced earlier in the year for those on means tested benefits,” she said. “We at CAP are asking the Government to double those.

"We are also asking for a pause in deductions. When people are on benefits, they can often have deductions from those benefits to pay lots of government-based debts such as court fines and council tax arrears.

"The rate of those deductions is high, so they are paying them back really quickly.

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"We are asking for a six month moratorium so people get more of those benefits to pay those bills."

Helen added that they wanted the energy companies to be banned from forcibly fitting pre-payment meters on those who get into arrears on their energy bills.

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Leeds debt advice: Where to go for support if you’re struggling with rising cost...

"They will be paying a higher tariff than someone who isn’t,” she said. “They will also purchase, say, £10 worth of fuel, but only pay for £6 of it, because the rest is going to pay off debts.

"We are asking for them to ban forcibly switching someone onto a pre-payment meter.”