Almost a quarter of Scottish households are having to choose between heating and eating this winter, with new research claiming people are turning off their energy supplies because they cannot afford the bills.
Some 613,000 households in Scotland live in fuel poverty, social enterprise The Wise Group said.
And there has been a 139% increase in customers seeking debt relief support but only a 41% rise in suppliers agreeing to write off money owed.
Sean Duffy, chief executive of The Wise Group, said: “Almost a quarter of Scots live in fuel poverty. As a result, vulnerable people are choosing to self-disconnect their energy supply to save money, and, as the temperatures drop, the decision to choose between eating and heating becomes increasingly stark.
“We have seen increasing numbers choosing to disconnect their energy supply, or at risk of self-disconnection for a variety of reasons.
“These households are hidden from the traditional ‘in debt’ description of the ‘vulnerable customer’ because they have chosen to disconnect.”
The Lights Off To Lights On report by the social enterprise also found a 185% jump in people seeking energy advice from the group during the Covid-19 pandemic, while more than a quarter of its customers have also admitted to rationing and self-disconnecting because they cannot afford the bill.
The report looked at responses from The Wise Group’s customers in the Greater Glasgow and Tyne and Wear areas.
“Behind these shocking figures are real stories of people wrapped in a duvet all day to keep warm, scared of sending their kids to school smelling of damp, unable to boil the kettle or cook their dinner, terrified of the next energy bill,” Duffy added.
“Sadly, many communities in Glasgow, and across Scotland and the North East of England, are already leading the way in energy reduction – as they are simply unable to afford it.”
The organisation said a former lawyer who it named only as Michael is an example of the real-world struggle to afford heating.
Michael, from Glasgow, had spent most of his life in a sleeping bag while coping with fuel poverty.
“I had nothing, I had nowhere to turn. I didn’t think anyone would be able to help, and I was reluctant to ask for support. I didn’t even know there was help out there,” he said.
“I struggled with my mental health, and when I was unable to heat my flat or get hot water, everything seemed harder to cope with. I’d spend the day in my sleeping bag to stay warm.
“You just don’t ever think there’s going to be a way out when you have to live like that, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been forgotten.”
The Wise Group said the smart meter rollout has affected fuel-rationing households, with respondents telling of long waiting times, technical hitches and difficulty reading results.
And it said vulnerable families also pay more for energy because they cannot access the best deals and rates for services.