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Guest Article: National Debtline

By Dennis Hussey, an adviser at National Debtline

At National Debtline, we speak to people who have found themselves in debt or under financial strain for a host of reasons.

However, energy-related debt is an issue we’ve seen increase significantly – last year, 17 percent of calls to National Debtline were related to gas or electricity arrears – up from 12 percent in 2010.  In many cases, these arrears are a direct consequence of fuel poverty.

From the people we speak to on the phone, we know that energy arrears can be caused by many different issues. Sometimes it can be a breakdown of communication, a missed payment, and then a surprisingly hefty bill. Sometimes the person may already be paying off arrears, but find that they are no longer able to afford to incorporate it into their budget. At this time of year, many people we speak to are facing a ‘bill shock’, as the temperature jumps, the heating goes on, and gas and electricity bills go up.

Another common problem is that customers often don’t realise their rights. Tenants privately renting may not be sure about asking a landlord to install a pre-pay meter, or knowing you can switch suppliers even if you have an outstanding bill of up to £500.

Many people we speak to often are struggling with arrears payments but aren’t aware of the help available. Many energy suppliers offer grants and funds, and they are not always necessarily just for their customers. Our MyMoneySteps site runs in partnership with the Turn2us Benefits Calculator, allowing users to search for available help and creating a budget to help regain control of their finances.

Whilst working through bills with clients, we often find that energy efficiency has a role to play in high costs. This can be down to living circumstances, for example, empty nesters who now have a larger, but under-occupied home, to heat. Or in private rented accommodation where landlords are reluctant to make changes to help with energy efficiency. 

Here are National Debtline’s top five tips for getting your fuel bills in check:

  1. Check your account is not being billed on estimates – always give a meter reading

  2. ​Always check you’re on the best tariff – shop around for the best deal

  3. Keep in touch with your supplier – they may be able to help more than you think.  For instance, if you receive benefits, you may be able to arrange to pay your arrears as a direct deduction, making budgeting easier

  4. See if you can cut down the energy you use – visit Home Energy Check.

  5. Use the Turn2us Benefits Calculator to check your entitlements and the Turn2us Grants Search to see if there are any trust funds from energy suppliers or charitable funds available

It’s important to make sure you know when your energy bills need paying, and budgeting accordingly – especially during the winter months. Of course, this isn’t always possible, and if you are struggling to cope, seek free advice from a charity-run service like National Debtline as early as possible. The earlier you seek advice, the quicker and easier the problem will be to resolve. 

By Dennis Hussey, an adviser at National Debtline 

Coronavirus Information

My child's school is closing due to the coronavirus outbreak. What can I do?

The government has announced that schools will be closing for the majority of students from 20 March 2020.

Children in the following groups will still be able to go to school if their parents choose to send them:

  • The children of key workers
  • Children receiving support from social services
  • Children with disabilities
  • Children with Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs​)
  • Young carers

If you need to take time off work to care for your children, you should check your employment rights on the ACAS website.

What if I am well but my employer tells me not to work because of the coronavirus outbreak?

This will depend on your contract and is an employment law issue. You may be able to get advice from ACAS on this. You will not be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).

What if I have been in contact with someone with coronavirus and don’t want to go to work and risk infecting my colleagues and customers?

You will only be able to get special help under the coronavirus rules if you are self-isolating in accordance with NHS advice. You can find the current NHS coronavirus advice on the NHS website

What if I am not getting any customers in my self-employed business because of the coronavirus?

You may be able to claim Universal Credit, but you will not be entitled to any special support because of the coronavirus outbreak. You may have the minimum income floor applied to your claim, or you may be required to look for full time-employment.

I’m on a zero-hours contract, will I get paid if I’m told to self isolate?

If you are self-isolating in accordance with NHS guidance and you usually earn at least £120 per week, you should get Statutory Sick Pay even if you are on a zero hours contract.

What if I am homeless with no income so can’t self-isolate and need funds for accommodation?

The government has not published any guidance for what you should do if you are homeless and develop coronavirus symptoms. It would be best to contact your local authority for advice. You should do so by telephone if at all possible.