Analysis released today by Citizens Advice shows the struggle that many people, particularly single-parent families, have with debt as the cost of living crisis begins to bite.

Citizens Advice’s figures show that around 280,000 people in England and Wales sought one-to-one help with debt in 2021, with many more using its website. Of those, almost 70,000 went on to complete a full debt assessment, which examines their income and spending, as well as their debts.

This reveals that those who did this assessment had debts totalling £693 million, averaging nearly £6,000 per person. The true scale of debt held by those helped by the charity is likely to be far larger.

Alarmingly, of those who completed a debt assessment in 2021 1 in 4 people were in single-parent families, twice as many as the number of couples with children the charity helped. This is despite single parent families making up fewer than 15% of families in the UK.

A staggering majority of those who sought assistance (88%) owed money either to the government or on essential bills, with £284m owed to these creditors.

Issues with energy debts rose sharply in 2021, increasing by 51% compared to 2020. Problems with paying back benefit overpayments also grew. This was particularly the case with Universal Credit overpayments issues which rose 117% compared to 2020. Both are now significantly higher than they were before the pandemic.

Citizens Advice’s analysis suggests that this situation is set to get worse in 2022. From April, significant increases are expected in council tax and on essential bills, particularly on energy costs, which are estimated to rise by £700 a year in line with the price cap.

The charity is urging the government to bring forward a package of support to help ease the cost of living squeeze, including a one-off Energy Support Grant to be paid through the benefits system this April and an expanded Warm Home Discount scheme.

Dame Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“While all of us face the cost-of-living crisis, there are thousands of people who are already held back by their debts. The £700m of debt our advisors helped with in 2021 is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. With more price rises on the way, support is urgently required for those most in need.

“If you’re worried about your debts, taking action early is vital. Citizens Advice and other charities are here to help you find a way forward.”