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210,000 homes face energy bills crisis

HUNDREDS of thousands of consumers are in serious arrears with their utility bills.

There are now 210,000 ESB and Bord Gais customers struggling to pay their bills on time.

Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) said that it is assisting more than 45,000 people with an average debt of €20,000.

More consumers have agreed to payment plans with their energy provider as they buckle under the weight of rising costs and lower incomes.

The ESB said that they now have 240,000 customers on specialised payment plans -- a threefold increase.

Meanwhile, Bord Gais has agreed 63,000 payment plans with customers this year, compared with 31,500 last year.

A total of 103,000 customers with Bord Gais are in arrears of 60 days or more.

The CSO outlined yesterday that the overall cost of living continues to rise, and prices in general have jumped by 0.3pc in September. MABS said that its client list is expanding and within the first six months of the year, it took on 13,000 new clients.

The average amount owed by the agency's new clients has grown from just over €6,990 in 2006 to €19,471.

For the first time, a number of people under 18 have called on the services of the budgeting advice agency as well as more than 150 pensioners and homeless people.

Spokesman Michael Culloty said that client figures had increased to 45,000 and more are expected.

MABS stated that that about 70pc of all debts owed by clients were to banks or financial institutions.

Mr Culloty said: "We don't take on people who can deal with creditors themselves. The people we help are those who really need it."

Over the past two months, the four gas providers have pushed up their rates, which adds an extra €150 to the average household gas bill each year.

However, the regulator said that it was prepared to sanction an increase of 6pc less than that. This means the average gas bill of €720 a year could climb to nearly €900.