Energy bills: how you can get help in the UK cost of living crisis

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Switching off the lights and turning down the heating has become a habit, with two-thirds of Britons using less gas and electricity in an effort to reduce their living costs, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Yet charities are receiving unprecedented numbers of calls for help. Citizens Advice aided almost 215,000 people with energy problems in the year to November– an increase of 50% on the same period of 2021, and double the number it helped in 2020. If you need help with your energy bill here are some of the options.

Government cost of living help

Every household in England, Scotland and Wales is eligible for the energy bills support scheme, which is part of the government’s cost of living package. It is worth £400 in total, with the discount applied to your household electricity bill in six instalments over the winter months. If you have not received the discount contact your energy supplier.

View image in fullscreenEvery household in England, Scotland and Wales is eligible for the energy bills support scheme. Photograph: Denis Torkhov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

There have been reports of people missing out, particularly when they have a traditional prepayment meter. In theory, they should get a voucher code by text, email or post, or receive automatic credits when topping up, while those on smart prepayment meters should get the top-up automatically.

The government said on Monday that 900,000 households in England, Scotland and Wales without a direct relationship to an energy supplier – including people living in care homes and on caravan parks – would be able to apply online for the £400.

The government said on Monday that 900,000 households in England, Scotland and Wales without a direct relationship to an energy supplier – including people living in care homes and on caravan parks – would be able to apply online for the £400.

Help in colder weather

The warm home discount is worth £150 and is applied as a one-off discount to your electricity bill rather than cash paid into your bank account. But be aware that changes were made to the fuel poverty scheme, which is available in England, Scotland and Wales, this year and some groups, such as those on disability benefits that are not means-tested, are no longer able to claim. Charities say some 500,000 households face missing out.

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If you can’t afford to pay, contact your energy company as early as possible. If you’re eligible you should have received a letter by the end of January and the discount should be applied automatically to your bill. You can use the online form on the Gov.uk website to see if you are eligible. In Wales, people on certain benefits can apply through their local authority for the Wales fuel support scheme, worth a one-off payment of £200.

View image in fullscreenMany households were already worried about rising energy bills before this month’s cold snap. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

People who receive a range of benefits, including pension credit, income support, and support with mortgage interest, may also be eligible for cold weather payments. Under this scheme, the government will make a payment of £25 to those eligible for each period of seven days, between 1 November and 31 March, in which the temperature drops to below 0C (or is forecast to do so). The payments depend on local weather – so in the postcodes NE27 and M15, for example, the weather has already been cold enough for enough days to trigger two payments.

Help for older people

The winter fuel payment is worth between £250 and £600 towards heating bills (including a cost of living payment) for people born before 26 September 1956. Again, it should arrive automatically but if you haven’t received it, and think you should have, call the winter fuel payment helpline on 0800 731 0160.

Ask your council about the household support fund

The government’s household support fund has grown by another £500m, and been extended until March 2023. “The fund helps households most in need to pay for essentials such as food and utilities,” says Sue Anderson of the debt charity StepChange. Councils run their own funds and set their own eligibility criteria. Help is typically aimed at households where there is a child, a person with disabilities or someone over retirement age.

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Each council has a different approach– some ask for applications, some say that they will not accept requests and instead are contacting eligible households directly. In some cases, though, applications are closed until January, or even “until further notice”, because of the high demand for help. Contact your local council to find out if there is a scheme available.

Help with prepayment meters

According to Citizens Advice, about 4 million households will be using prepayment meters in the UK this winter, and could be paying on average £258 more than direct debit customers.

Even so, Ofgem says prepayment meters can be suitable for “those who are budgeting or are on lower incomes” as well as people who use them for “bill management for those who do not have a bank account or prefer cash, and energy management for select groups in rented properties like student accommodation”.

View image in fullscreenCitizens Advice says about 4 million households will be using prepayment meters in the UK this winter. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

They can be used as an “enforcement solution” for people who “refuse to pay their bills” but energy suppliers also move people over to prepayment meters if they have outstanding debts on their bill payments – even when they are willing, but unable, to pay.

Nonetheless, Citizens Advice says: “We continue to advise high numbers of people every month who are having energy prepayment meters forcibly installed because they are unable to pay for their ongoing energy usage. This is particularly concerning, as we are also seeing more people who can’t afford to top up their energy prepayment meter – effectively disconnecting themselves.”

Ofgem rules make it clear that energy suppliers should offer emergency support to customers in danger of being cut off

In the year leading to November, Citizens Advice saw more people unable to afford to top up their prepayment meter than for the entirety of the previous six years combined. It says: “If you run out of gas or electricity because you can’t top up your meter, this is called self-disconnecting. Tell your supplier that you’d have to self-disconnect if you had a prepayment meter.”

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Energy customers can refuse to move to prepayment meters in a number of situations – for example, if they wouldn’t be able to get to the prepayment meter or if they would be unable to top it up – whether that’s because they are unable to get to a post office or top-up point, or because they cannot afford to do so.

Ofgem rules make it clear that energy suppliers should offer emergency support to customers who find themselves in danger of being cut off, which includes when the meter runs low or runs out, if top-up points are closed, for example on weekends and public holidays, and if you can’t leave your house because of illness.

Contact your energy supplier if you are struggling to pay

“Even with the government support, many will be struggling to pay their energy bills, which have risen sharply this year, particularly as the colder weather takes hold,” Anderson says. “If you can’t afford to pay, contact your energy company as early as possible and ask them if you can pay at a rate you can afford. You can also ask for details of grants or hardship funds they have available. Energy companies have a regulatory responsibility to help customers who are experiencing financial difficulty.”

Get help with getting help

For older people struggling with bills, Age UK can provide support with debt and energy issues such as prepayment meters.

If you are unable to pay, the debt charities StepChange, National Debtline, Christians Against Poverty and PayPlan can offer impartial advice on negotiating with energy companies on repayment plans or accessing hardship funds.

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