Rise in struggling customers as help goes unclaimed, says British Gas

The boss of Centrica defended his firm's high profits as many struggle to pay their energy bills

The head of Britain’s biggest energy firm has told ITV News there are new signs of customers struggling to pay - as many cut back on power consumption.

But the Chief Executive of Centrica, which owns British Gas, defended its high profits and says millions of pounds in financial help is still going unclaimed. 

The Centrica energy boss, Chris O’Shea, says: “We have seen a number of customers who have either cancelled their direct debit or the direct debits have been returned unpaid or who have been struggling to pay the bill.”

The rise in customers who are struggling comes despite billions of pounds in government support for households.

British Gas has around 7.5 million household customers and the energy group’s chief executive told ITV News: “People are more aware of the energy they are using and more aware of the cost, and they’ve taken measures to cutback… so we are seeing more than a 10% reduction in gas.”

Although customers are facing financial problems, British Gas says funds it has set aside to help are going unclaimed.

Energy usage is down, according to Chris O'Shea. Credit: PA

The firm has allotted £50 million to support households and its boss says “I don’t know” when asked why money has not been requested by more customers in financial distress.

“What I’d like to see is the funds that we put aside now being used,” said Mr O’Shea.

The firm says only when existing support has run out will they come to the question of whether more should be offered.

Centrica’s chief defended the power firm against claims it is profiting from misery, saying it is now supporting more than 40 debt charities.

Mr O’Shea insists: “The only way for companies to survive is to make a profit... over 90% of our shares are owned either by UK citizens directly or by pension funds.”

In his first reaction to the government’s new extension to the windfall tax on energy firms, Centrica’s boss says: “It’s something that fundamentally I don’t think is the right thing.”

He says the new levy unveiled in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement will lead to a review of investments and says it’s “inevitable” some projects will be scrapped, “whether that’s any of our projects - who knows.”

The tax has been extended to include renewable and low carbon electricity generation, but Chris O’Shea told ITV News “the use of windfall taxes is not, in my view, the right way to create the right investment climate.”

Are you entitled to unclaimed help from British Gas funds? 

The energy firm says customers with problems paying bills should contact the British Gas Energy Trust. The Trust offers:

  • Grants to people with energy debt between £250 and £750 (you don’t need to be a British Gas customer)

  • Grants up to £1,500 for British Gas customers with energy debt

  • Reduction in payment instalments - call 0333 202 9804

  • Linking you to local advice centres and face- to-face advice in the community.

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