Nucleus has long experience with advising on energy bills and debts. With the £23 000 benefit cap looming many people in receipt of benefits are facing a squeeze on income.
More people will be entering fuel poverty as a result this winter.
Under the old definition fuel poverty was where 10% or more of your available income went on fuel bills. The Government now uses the Low Income High Costs indicator. Basically, you will be in fuel poverty if you live in a cold or damp home which you cannot afford to heat and what money you have left puts you below the poverty line.
What to do
If you are facing difficulty paying your gas or electricity bills this autumn or winter 2016/2017 it is important that you inform your energy supplier as soon as you can about your position and that you have – or will have – problems in paying your bill.
You should not be disconnected between October to March if you are:
* a pensioner
* or have children under 18 If the supplier knows or has reason to believe you are such a customer, it must not disconnect you if you live alone or live with another pensioner or children under 18.
Other cases – hardship and poverty
If you are threatened with disconnection because you cannot pay your bill, there are other methods of recovery. Disconnection of supplymust be a last resort.
Standard Licence Condition 27 issued by Ofgem which applies to all energy suppliers states:
- You are entitled to a payment arrangement to repay your arrears at a rate you can afford.
- To pay by regular instalments and through a means other than a prepayment meter.
- If you are on a qualifying benefit to have an amount deducted from Fuel Direct
- If you have not been able to manage a payment arrangement, you must be offered a prepayment meter (if safe and practical) as an alternative to disconnection.
- The meter must be set to recover arrears at a realistic rate which you can afford.
- If you are below pension age and your household includes persons who are of pensionable age, disabled or chronically sick, Suppliers must take ‘all reasonable steps’ to avoid disconnecting your supply in winter.
- You should be offered information about how you can reduce your charges by using fuel more efficiently
However, you will be expected to pay for energy you consume unless the supplier agrees to write-off an amount or you can get the bill covered by any advice agencies that have “Income Maximisation” services to tackle low incomes by making sure clients are claiming all the welfare benefits to which they are entitled. There is a free benefits check calculator on the Turn 2 Us websitehttp://www.turn2us.org.uk and they also have a telephone helpline. Nucleus can assist with this.
Nucleus can help with applications for benefits and dealing with energy debts and helping people fill in application forms.
The energy regulator Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) and the Government take the view that the only way a consumer can really combat rising energy costs is by shopping around for the best deal and switching to a cheaper tariff or cheaper energy supplier.
The energy regulator Ofgem has a list of approved price comparison websites. You can visit their energy shopping website at http://www.goenergyshopping.co.uk/en-gb/how-to-shop
However, a lot of people are not able to engage with the internet or resources on the web. From experience Nucleus recognises that many people may have difficulties with switching like this. We offer help and advice to individuals and organisations assisting people with these problems and also help with applying for grants and bills.
People affected include partially sighted and disabled people and those who have difficulty with written and spoken English (however occasioned), many of the elderly or those who have had telephone land-lines disconnected. Web-based services are difficult for many of those who are the most vulnerable to used (we realise not every disabled person is Stephen Hawking or a team GB Para-Olympian).
If you don’t feel confident enough to switch yourself, some local councils and housing associations have Affordable Warmth/Energy Efficiency officers who can guide you through the process.
If you do not currently have a central heating system in your home or if your existing system/boiler is broken, you can apply to www.britishgasenergytrust.org.uk which provides free grants for boilers/central heating systems. You do not need to be a British Gas customer to apply and the only criterion for applying is financial hardship. They help people in work as well as those in receipt of benefits.
It is rare that an energy supplier will disconnect your supply completely.
More often than not, the supplier will apply for a Court Warrant through the magistrates’ court to gain legal access to your property to change your meters to pay as you go meters.
It is important you attend any hearing to explain your position.
Any debt on the account(s) will be transferred onto the pay as you go meters so every time you put credit on the meter, it will deduct money to repay the debt. For example, if you put £10 credit on the meter, it may deduct £3 to repay the debt. There could also be additional deductions from the meter for standing charges and to replace any emergency credit used.
If you are on a low income and you are on pay as you go meters, this can lead to self disconnection because if you haven’t got the money to top up your meters, you cannot afford to have a gas or electricity supply in your home. This is why it’s important to make sure you are claiming all the benefits you are entitled to.
Priority Services Registers for vulnerable customers (people who are disabled, of pensionable age or have long term health problems.) are operated by some suppliers
If you have a health problem or you are elderly, I recommend telephoning your energy supplier to inform them of this and request to be added to the Register.
If you do get into financial difficulties paying your bills, the energy supplier will have to take into consideration your vulnerability when considering enforcement action. Additional services can also be provided such as a password scheme or bills printed in large print.
Social tariffs for vulnerable clients over 60, on means-tested benefits, are living in fuel poverty or are on a low income have been able to claim a special tariff – THESE ARE BEING PHASED OUT : If you are not already on a social tariff, there is little point applying for one now as they are currently being replaced by the Warm Home Discount.
For more information please refer to our news item on social tariffs.
If you have a large debt with your energy supplier which you are struggling to repay, there are several charitable trusts which provide free grants to clear gas and electricity debts but it can take several weeks for applications to be processed.
If you are an EON customer, you can apply to http://www.eonenergyfund.com
If you are an N Power customer, you can apply to http://www.npowerenergyfund.com
If you are an EDF customer, you can apply to http://www.edfenergytrust.org.uk
If you are a Scottish Power customer, you can apply to https://www.sedhardship.fund
Finally, if you are a British Gas customer it has http://www.britishgasenergytrust.org.uk (The British Gas Energy Trust accepts applications from customers of all energy suppliers but if your energy supplier has its own energy fund, you will be expected to apply to that first.