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Gas & electricity arrears. What to do if you can't pay your bill.

Gas and electricity are priority debts. This is because if you fall into arrears, your supplier can disconnect you or fit a pre-payment meter for any arrears.

If you’re struggling to manage your gas and electricity payments we can provide free, impartial advice and solutions to clear arrears and meet future payments.

What can my energy supplier do if I have arrears?

If you don’t pay your gas or electric 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 meter.

Any arrears will be added to the pre-payment 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, although this is rare.

If no payments are made to the pre-payment meter, the arrears carry over to the following week. For example if your arrears are set to be taken at £5 each week and you make no payments, you'll need to top up £10 the following week to pay the arrears before you'll get any supply.

Each time the meter is topped up, any outstanding arrears payments are taken first. 

Dealing with gas and electricity arrears

If you've got a large bill, or arrears with your energy bills you have several options:

  • Pay the full amount
  • Make arrangements with your supplier to spread the cost of the arrears over a period of time 
  • Ask your supplier to fit a pre-payment meter to clear the arrears over a longer period and prevent future arrears building up.

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What should I do if my bill is high?

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 is estimated, make sure you can provide a more accurate up-to-date reading to your supplier. Even if the current reading is higher and the new bill would be more, it’s better in the long term to make sure your readings are correct.
  • Have 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’
  • Has it been a long time since the meter was last read? If a correct reading has been taken after a series of underestimated bills, there can be a large bill to cover previous underpayments. The longer it’s been since the meter was read, the less accurate the estimated readings will be.
  • Is the bill 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? Check the amount of units used in a day with the new appliance on, then turn it off for a day and compare the amount used. 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.
  • Are you on the right tariff? Some properties have electric storage heaters or water tanks that heat up and use more electricity overnight. Suppliers have special Economy 7 (E7) tariffs designed to charge less at night and more during the day. If you're not sure if you're on the right tariff for your needs, check with your energy provider and they can help you switch.
  • Want to keep costs down? Energy bills can depend on the time of year, your usage, type of property and how you pay your bill. If you're looking to keep your energy bills down visit the Energy Saving Trust website for detailed guides and advice.

If you've checked all of these and you're still worried that your bill seems high, speak to your supplier for advice. It's a good idea to 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.

Can I get help to pay my arrears?

If you receive benefits you may be able to arrange for payments to be taken directly from your benefits using a scheme called third party deductions or Fuel Direct. This means that part of your benefits are paid straight to your energy supplier to help cover the arrears and your current energy usage.

Fuel Direct will deduct an amount to cover the estimated gas or electric you use each week, plus a fixed amount towards the arrears. This can be a helpful way to clear arrears in manageable amounts and prevent your supply from being cut off or further action being taken. It's important to think carefully before setting up Fuel Direct as it will reduce the amount of benefits you are left with in cash.

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

Other schemes to help with gas and electricity bills

During winter there are several government schemes offering support towards your gas and electricity bills if you're receiving certain benefits or on a low income.

Utility switching

If you're looking to save money on your existing energy bills, utility switching can help you keep your bills lower and get the best deal from your energy supplier. 

You can change to a different supplier at any time, except if:

  • You have arrears of more than £500 still outstanding on a pre-payment meter
  • You have a normal meter with arrears that have been outstanding for more than 28 days

There are some exceptions to this, such as whether your arrears were the fault of the supplier. 

There are lots of price comparison websites that can help you find the best deal for your gas and electricity. Before you make the switch it’s a good idea to do some research, just in case your current supplier can help you save money.

We’d recommend using a switching service that has the Ofgem confidence code logo. This means they offer a ‘whole of market’ comparison, and you can be confident that  you’re being offered impartial and unbiased comparisons.

How can I make a complaint?

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 would you like an apology or reimbursing.

To support your complaint, it's worth keeping a track of all the contact you've had with your energy supplier as this could come in useful at a later date. Your energy supplier will need time to investigate your complaint fully, so you'll need to be patient while you wait for their decision.

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. 

What should I do if I owe money to an energy supplier that closes?

You should carry on making the payments to repay what you owe as agreed, unless you’re told otherwise.

When you’re on a debt management plan with us we continue to make the payments for you. There’ll be no change to your plan. We will do this we’re told not to by the creditor or administrator.

Ofgem is the UK’s independent energy regulator. There’s lots of useful information on their website.

Can an energy supplier bill me for energy used over a year ago?

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.

Since then, there have been news reports of closed electricity companies who have mistakenly calculated how much money their former customers owed on their final bill. As a result, some customers have received letters saying that they owe money to the closed energy firm or the company that’s collecting on their behalf.

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.

If in doubt, follow the complaint procedure mentioned above, and get in touch with Ofgem and the Energy Ombudsman for further advice.

Debt help if you've got arrears

If you're struggling with the arrears or can't afford to pay your current bill, the sooner you get help the better. If you speak to your supplier they may be able to offer extra help. We can also get you back on track with a personalised budget and appropriate debt solution.

Use our online debt advice tool to get free, expert advice. It's easy to use and can offer practical advice and a debt solutions in around 20 minutes. If you'd prefer to speak to us, call us (free from all landlines and mobiles).

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