Health Matters

Can’t Pay Utility Bills?

Sam Bond

Sam Bond

Welcome to Sam Bond from the local Age Concern service. If you have any questions or concerns that you would like Sam to answer, write to us at whwhistler@aol.com and we’ll ask Sam’s advice. Now that the cold weather has hit us, older people will need their heating more than most. They may not go out and about as much as others, may move about indoors less, and are more vulnerable to the effects of the cold. However, workers at the Information and Advice Service at Age Concern Brighton, Hove and Portslade know from experience that many older people struggle to pay their fuel bills. So what do we advise older people in this situation?

One of the things you can do is to ask your supplier about social tariffs. Most energy suppliers offer social tariffs (reduced rates) to older people and those with long term health conditions. Each supplier has their own rules about who qualifies for social tariffs, so contact your supplier to check whether you qualify.

If you can’t afford to pay your bill in full you might also consider spreading the cost. You could ask the supplier what payment schemes they offer. With fixed payment schemes you can pay regular instalments throughout the year, usually weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Flexible payment schemes allow you to make payments of any amount at any time, but you need to know the terms of the agreement, ie what happens if you build up a debt.

If you fall behind with payments, keep the company informed and pay as much as you can. If you contact the company, you may be able to arrange a regular payment to catch up, but make sure you can keep up with the agreed payments. The supplier is obliged to take your financial circumstances into consideration when setting debt repayments. If you can’t afford the repayments, the Consumer Focus website has a template letter to help you request a reduction (www.consumerfocus.org.uk – search for ‘letter template’).

Gas and electric companies must leave 28 days between sending a bill and a disconnection notice. The disconnection notice must give at least 7 days notice. If you are threatened with disconnection, contact the energy supplier straight away. Some suppliers will not disconnect households between 1 October and 31 March where all occupants are of pensionable age (unless it is clear they can afford to pay). Gas and electric companies must make this clear in their codes of practice. As an alternative to disconnection, gas and electric companies may offer you a prepayment meter if you can’t keep up with the payment plan.

If you do get disconnected you can phone Consumer Direct on 0845 404 0506. It is likely they will refer this to Consumer Focus and it should be sorted out on the next working day. You can also use the Consumer Focus website to check what grants, benefits or advice might be able to get to help pay your bill. The Energy Saving Trust on 0800 512 012 www.energysavingtrust.org.uk can provide information on grants and schemes to improve energy efficiency. For more information, if you are over 50, you can phone Age Concern Info & Advice Service on 01273 720603, Mon-Fri 10am-4pm.

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