MORE and more people are struggling to pay their electricity and gas bills - and the energy ombudsman has warned the number of people defaulting has soared by 80%.
The Médiateur de l'Energie report for 2011 says the number of applications for help rose by 14% as gas prices rose 25% in two years and electricity bills 8%.
On average, unpaid bills total €410.
Now the independent agency has called for an extension of the winter "truce" on people having their electricity or gas cut off because of unpaid bills. At the moment, only those who are claiming the Fonds de Solidarité pour le Logement benefit are protected outside the winter trêve.
The ombudsman said: "Those not entitled to social benefits but who are unable to pay their bill face a very real threat of having their power supply cut off.
"It's not right to cut heat and light during this period to well-intentioned people who cannot pay their bill."
The regulator welcomed the move to introduce automatic cheaper power tariffs for those on benefits. It said that only 650,000 people benefited from this at the moment while two million were eligible for the "social tariff" which gives average savings of €90 a year for households using electricity for heating and €156 for those using gas.
However, it said that EDF should lose its monopoly on the use of this social tariff - people using other power suppliers could not get access to it without switching to EDF.
The ombudsman said that despite power supply being liberalised five years ago, only 42% of people knew that they could choose an alternative to EDF or GDF.