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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, currently £3.70 per week (about £16 a calendar month) for the 2016-17 tax year. 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

There are a number of other ways you can get help with your energy bills that could help you save money depending on your situation. This includes:

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.

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 Remedy 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 our Helpline (free from all landlines and mobiles).

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