More than 31,500 people in Scotland sought debt help and over 11,000 went through a full debt advice process during the year of the pandemic, according to Stepchange charity’s latest ‘Scotland in the Red’ update.

The research showed that average client rent arrears rose by a dramatic 43% in 2020, one of the most worrying impacts of the pandemic and a very clear warning that continuing support will be needed for many households if recovery from post-Covid debt is to be achievable.

Polling shows thousands of Scots are struggling with debt and are behind on essential bills like Council Tax and rent, with more than a fifth using credit to make ends meet (see notes to editors) and cover essential costs.

Around one in ten clients explicitly identified COVID-19 as a reason for their financial difficulties, despite Government and regulatory intervention and temporary additional support. The most common debts held by clients were Credit Cards (70%) and loans (53%). In terms of household bills, significant proportions of clients were struggling with Council Tax (43%), rent and utilities. Around of half of those seeking help had some form of additional vulnerability as well as their problem debt.

Sharon Bell, Head of StepChange Scotland Debt Charity, said “The past year has presented households with unprecedented challenges; thrown those just getting by into real financial difficulty and exacerbated the difficulties of those who were already struggling. It is particularly concerning to see so many households with additional vulnerabilities needing help. It’s really important, as the country begins to look towards some light at the end of the tunnel, that concrete steps are taken to support households in problem debt who will feel they are facing a bleak financial future.”

“We are making important recommendations that would help those households. We want to see the Scottish Government build on its actions to date to ensure that any recovery does not leave financially vulnerable households behind. That should involve putting some of its emergency measures on to a permanent footing. Support needs to be identified for those struggling with essential costs like rent, utilities and especially Council Tax, where improvements to debt management practice are sorely needed. The good work already achieved under the Debt Advice Routemap needs to be extended, and a cross-government strategy needs to be adopted to address not just post-crisis debt solutions, but also the underlying drivers of debt.”