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How to deal with rising energy bills during the coronavirus crisis

Has your electric or gas supplier told you to contact us?

In this guide, you'll find information around what support's available for your gas or electric bill.

We've all been spending more time at home for a while now. As a result, our energy usage has increased.

Many people are also facing a reduction in their income due to the pandemic. With all that in mind, it's not surprising that people are struggling to pay their energy bills.

Use our energy customer guide

If you're worried about paying your energy bills, this guide answers some frequently asked questions. These will help you:

  • Deal with any immediate concerns about your energy bills
  • Understand your rights when dealing with your energy provider
  • Feel more confident about handling your utility bills

Frequently asked questions about energy bills and arrears

Because many people's bills have increased due to coronavirus, some energy suppliers are concerned that their customers might start struggling to pay them, especially when usage increases again in winter.

While you might only be slightly behind on your payments now, your supplier might think that you'll benefit from reviewing your budget with us to help stop your financial situation getting any worse. We can look at everything you're dealing with, including:

  • Other priority bills such as your mortgage, council tax and utilities
  • Living costs such as food, toiletries and clothing 
  • Unsecured debts such as loans, credit cards and overdrafts

We can then give you budgeting advice and look at possible debt solutions for you, should you need this.

Once you become a client of ours, you’re given a client reference number. It's usually seven digits long. Energy suppliers will accept it as proof that you've been getting help with your situation.

We can’t give you a reference number unless you register your details with us. The number is then generated automatically as part of your debt advice or budgeting session with one of our advisors.

Ultimately, your energy supplier will need a deeper understanding of your situation. You can provide this either by going through a debt advice session with us or putting together a budget

Your gas and electric bills are priority bills. A bill is classed as a priority when there are severe consequences to missing or being late on a payment.

If you don’t pay your gas or electricity bills, your supplier can collect the debt you owe using a debt collection agency. They can also get a court warrant to enter your home to fit a pre-payment card meter.

Any arrears will be added to the meter and a set amount will be deducted each week. This means you must pay the arrears at a set weekly amount or lose the supply. Your supplier can also remove the meter and cut off your supply, but this is rare.

If you receive benefits, the arrears could be deducted from your benefits using a scheme called third party deductions or Fuel Direct. Part of your benefits are paid straight to your energy supplier to help cover the arrears and your energy usage.

To find out more about Fuel Direct, contact Jobcentre Plus or your local pension centre if you receive pension credits.

You may also qualify for a grant from a charitable trust to help pay off your arrears. Visit the Turn2Us charity website for more information on how to apply for an energy grant.

Large bills are rarely the result of a faulty meter. If you receive a bill that seems unusually high, you should check a few things first:

  • Is the current meter reading correct? If the bill's estimated, make sure you can provide a more accurate up-to-date reading to your supplier. Even if the current reading's higher and the new bill would be more, it’s better in the long term to make sure your readings are correct
  • Have your previous meter readings been correct? For example if the last bill was based on a low estimate, your current bill may be higher to ‘catch up’
  • Are you sure that the bill is for the same meter? There can be confusion about which meter should be read, especially if you live in a flat. You should note down the serial number and current reading on your meter and contact your supplier with these details. The meter serial number will be a mix of numbers and letters printed on the meter itself
  • Have you had any new appliances fitted? People often underestimate how much electricity some appliances, such as heaters, can use. Older appliances can also use a lot of electricity, especially if they’re faulty. Check the amount of units used in a day whenever a certain appliance is on, then turn it off for a day and compare the amount used

If you've checked all of these and you're still worried that your bill seems high, speak to your supplier for advice. You could also take a meter reading at the same time each day for a week to check your average daily usage, and have this information to hand when calling your supplier.

When an energy bill seems unreasonably high, many people consider switching utility suppliers. While this is an option you could consider, you may be able to stay with your current supplier and get a cheaper deal. Even though utility suppliers tend to offer discounts to new customers, you do have the right to contact your supplier and ask for the cheaper deal. Read our guide to negotiating a better deal with your energy supplier for more information.

In some circumstances, you can switch energy supplier even if your current supplier says you can't leave. If you're in debt to your supplier, whether you can leave our not will depend on how long you've been in arrears.

If you've been in arrears for 28 days or less, then you have the right to switch to another supplier. The money you owe will be added to your final bill with the old supplier.

If you've been in arrears for over 28 days, then you must pay the arrears off before you leave. An exception to this is if it's the energy supplier's fault that you're in arrears, for example if they made an incorrect estimation of your bill.

The rules are different if you pay in advance for gas and electricity usage via a payment meter. Payment meter customers can switch supplier if they owe less than £500 for gas or £500 for electricity. However, the new supplier will need to agree to take ownership of the debt as well as the supply. This is known as the ‘Debt Assignment Protocol’.

If you feel you've been treated unfairly by your energy supplier, you can raise a complaint with them following their complaints process. It's a good idea to think about how you'd like your complaint to be resolved, for example whether you'd like an apology or reimbursing.

If you're not satisfied with the outcome, you can escalate your complaint to Ombudsman Services. It's free to do so, and they'll review the evidence before making an impartial decision.

In April 2018, Ofgem ruled that energy suppliers couldn’t ‘back-bill’ their customers for energy that was used more than a year ago.

Back-billing is when suppliers estimate bills due to not having regular, accurate meter readings. Once they have the meter readings, the supplier might send a catch-up bill if the estimated amount was too low. The only exception to this ban is if a customer prevents an energy company from taking accurate meter readings, for example by refusing access to the meter to take a reading.

If this happens to you, and you don’t believe you owe this money, you do have the right to lodge a complaint with the company. If you don’t receive a satisfactory response, you can escalate your complaint to The Energy Ombudsman.

You must not ignore any letters that you receive about your energy bills, whether it’s from your current supplier or a previous one. Even if you disagree with the amount that you’ve been billed, there’s still a possibility that you owe some money. 

If the company that sent the letter doesn't hear from you, they may consider pursuing enforcement action through the courts if you live in England and Wales or through the courts if you live in Scotland, which could further complicate the problem.

While regularly switching energy suppliers can help save money, you may wonder if you can stay with your current supplier and still get a better price on your bill. 

Most energy suppliers offer cheap promotional deals to their new customers. As an existing customer, you can ask for that cheaper deal too. Go to the supplier's website and write down any deals you're interested in. You can then refer to them when talking to the sales team.

A good time to contact your supplier is near the end of your current contract. If the salesperson offers you a deal that’s not as good as you hoped, don’t be afraid to reject it. There may be other deals the salesperson could offer you, so make sure they tell you about everything that's on offer.

Smart meters are compact devices that you can display in your home. They have an easy-to-follow LED screen that accurately tells you how much energy you're using and how much it will cost. They also update your supplier each month, meaning that your bill is more likely to reflect your actual usage.

Many energy companies recommend smart meters as a way to help people save money on energy bills. If you make small changes to your energy consumption – e.g. switching off appliances when not in use, keeping the heating low etc. - you should see the benefits very quickly when checking your smart meter.

Visit the Smart Energy GB website for more information on smart meters and how they could help you reduce your energy bill.

If you're struggling to pay your energy bills, we can help you

If you're worried about paying your gas, electric or any other bills, find out what creditors and suppliers are doing to help.

Depending on your situation, you may also be able to get support with emergency or food costs

If you're already a StepChange client, we can continue to support you. Visit our contact us page to find out how to get in touch with us.

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