What is the 'Cost of Living Catastrophe' and what can families do to reduce its impact?

Gas Rig in the North Sea

Some gas is drilled from the North Sea - but much now reaches Britain from other countries, including Russia. - Credit: PA

Talk of a "Cost of Living Catastrophe" will worry many people - but the advice from most experts is to keep calm, carry on and see what happens.

Who will be affected by the tax rises?

Most workers earning a wage pay National Insurance, and there is no way of getting out of paying the 1.5% increase which will fund the NHS and care sector - one of the criticisms when this was announced is that even those on very low wages have to pay National Insurance although those on higher earnings do pay more.

Pensioners do not have to pay National Insurance, however.

Council tax rises will affect all households - although there are rebates for some residents.

What will happen to energy bills in April?

Energy bills are capped by the government. On October 1 this cap increased from £1,138 to £1,277 a year for the "average" home. This cap will remain in place until April 1 for standard variable rate customers.

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However, the wholesale cost of gas (which is also used to generate electricity) has increased from about 60p a Therm last February to 352p a Therm just before Christmas and that price rise cannot be absorbed without large increases in the retail price.

The government has already spoken to energy bosses about what will happen in the spring, and is expected to meet them regularly over the next few months.

But there is already speculation that a new cap could add 50%, or even more, higher than the current level. That kind of rise would put hundreds of pounds on the average family's energy bill.

Should I try to fix my energy bills now?

The advice from experts including the government energy regulator Ofgem and leading energy broker USwitch is that now is not a good time to fix your energy bills into the future.

While there are some fixed deal offers out there, they are all at comparatively high rates, above the current government-imposed cap for energy bills.

A spokesman for USwitch pointed out that with talks continuing for the next few months between the government and energy industry, it was better to hold on and see what happens before making any long-term commitment.

He also added: "This is the time of the year when people use the greatest amount of energy and if they have relatively low prices for the next three months that would be good. If you try to fix now you'll be paying higher prices straight away when you're using the most energy."

In October USwitch prompted widespread comment by taking out newspaper adverts urging people to stay with their existing suppliers. The spokesman said this was still very much their message today.

How can I reduce my bills?

The best way to keep bills down is to use less energy - improve insulation, switch off unused appliance etc. But some people can also be able to use their homes to generate some of their own power using technology like solar panels.

The Green Suffolk webpage has been set up by the county's local authorities to give advice on efforts to improve the environment and has a page on how to make your home more energy efficient and cut bills.

Why have energy bills gone up so much?

There are a number of factors:

After countries across the world came out of lockdown last year demand for gas shot up and producers struggled to supply enough.  

A hot summer across Asia pushed up demand for air conditioning units that used a huge amount of gas-generated electricity.

North Sea windfarm

Windfarms were not as productive as usual this year because the weather was calmer. - Credit: Mike Page

It was a very calm year in much of the world so windfarms, including those in the North Sea, were less productive than usual.

The political issues in Russia, a leading gas producer, and arguments about pipelines injected uncertainty into the market which also pushed up prices.