Help paying utility bills

If you are on a fixed or low income it can be difficult to find enough money to pay bills. If you or the person you care for have difficulty paying your gas, electricity or water bills, the information in this section can help you.

It contains information on the help you can get if you're on a low income, including cold weather payments, which can be paid to you or the person you care for. Payments for your gas, electricity or water bills can be made directly from some means-tested benefits through schemes called Fuel Direct and Water Direct.

Other ways of reducing bills or getting help to pay them include changing your supplier or changing your payment method. The help includes winter fuel payments and other grants.

There's also information in this section about the priority service register and protection from disconnection schemes.

The official online source of government information on benefits is GOV.UK.

Click on the bars below for more detailed information on keeping your bills low, and the support available to help you do this.

Energy efficiency

To help reduce your fuel bills, or those of the person you care for, consider how you could save energy at home. You can make small changes as well as bigger changes, such as improving your insulation.

You can save energy at home simply by:

  • switching off appliances instead of leaving them on standby
  • using energy-saving lightbulbs
  • buying energy-efficient appliances when you replace old ones
  • having showers instead of baths, if possible

Home improvements

Improving the insulation of cavity walls, lofts, tanks and pipes can save you money on your heating bills. Installing new or more efficient heating, making sure windows fit properly or installing double glazing can also help to lower your bills.

Warm Front Scheme

This is a scheme to help pay for heating and insulation improvements. It's available to people who either own their own home or pay rent. The scheme may provide a package of insulation and heating improvements up to £3,500, or £6,000 where oil, low carbon or renewable technologies are recommended.

The grant can pay for various types of work, including loft insulation, draughtproofing, cavity wall insulation, installation of gas, electric or oil central heating, and timer controls for electric space and water heaters.
The scheme is available to people on various benefits and tax credits, including:

If you're not receiving one of the required benefits, you can still check with the Warm Front scheme to see whether you're entitled to any benefit.

£300 rebate

If you do not qualify for a Warm Front Grant because you do not receive a relevant benefit, you may be eligible for a £300 rebate. You must be over 60 and own or privately rent your own home.

This rebate should help towards repairing or replacing an inoperable system or installing a new central heating system where none exists at the property. In order to receive this rebate, the cost of work must be more than £300 inc. VAT and is available in English Local Authority Areas only.

For further information on the Warm Front Scheme or the £300 rebate, contact the Warm Front Team free on 0800 316 2805 (textphone 0800 072 0156).

Warm Zones

Warm Zones was set up in 14 key areas across the UK in 2000 with Government support in order to develop new approaches to fuel poverty.

Warm Zones aims to identify households within these 14 areas and advise on installing cost-effective ways of reducing the amount spent on energy and maximise household income.

For further information and advice on how to cut costs and save money on energy bills, contact your local ‘Warm Zone team'.

Help with fuel bills

If you or the person you care for have any difficulty paying gas or electricity bills, there are several options.

Social tariffs

All energy providers must provide social tariffs to their vulnerable customers. Social tariffs aim to protect people on low incomes and those who are vulnerable due to old age or disability.

In keeping with official regulations, social tariffs can be no higher than their lowest deal on offer. Social tariffs are there to protect vulnerable people from high fuel and electricity prices. If you're struggling to meet fuel costs, you can ask if you're eligible to be moved to a social tariff.

Eligibility criteria may change from supplier to supplier. However, examples of people who may be entitled to social tariffs include households that are receiving:

You may also qualify if you receive a disability or severe disability entitlement with any child tax credits.

If you're looking after a vulnerable person or are vulnerable yourself, talk to your energy supplier to see if you can switch tariffs.

Switching supplier

Some people can be better off if they change to a different supplier, but check that it will be of benefit in your own case. There are price comparison websites on the internet, or you can contact the Home Heat Helpline on 0800 336 699.

Consider changing your payment method

It may also help if you change to a different method of payment, such as:

  • direct debit (some companies offer a discount if you pay via this method)
  • paying in instalments
  • having a pre-payment meter installed (although this may be more expensive)

You may also be given a discount if you agree to receive your bills by e-mail instead of by post. 

Take care to find the best solution for your particular circumstances. There are advantages and disadvantages to the various methods.

Energy trusts and other charities

Some gas and electricity suppliers have set up charities that can give grants if you're experiencing financial hardship because of fuel costs. Ask your supplier what's available.

Some charities also make grants towards fuel costs. For example, if you're affected by cancer and are having difficulty paying fuel bills, Macmillan may be able to give you a grant. The application has to be made on your behalf by a Macmillan nurse, district nurse or social worker.

Winter Fuel Payments

If you were born on or before July 5 1950, you'll qualify for a Winter Fuel Payment in 2010-11. This is a lump sum, normally paid automatically in November or December. The amount is:

  • £250 if you were born on or before July 5 1950, but after September 26 1930
  • £400 if you were 80 or older on or before September 26 2010

If you live with someone else who would also qualify, the payments are:

  • £125 for those under 80
  • £275 if you're the only person in the household aged 80 or older
  • £200 if you and at least one other person are aged 80 or older

If you haven't received a Winter Fuel Payment, contact the helpline on 0845 915 1515. You have to claim before March 31 2011. In some cases it's possible to make a claim for previous years.

Priority service register

Energy providers are required to keep a priority service register for elderly or disabled customers. You can contact your supplier and ask to be put on this register. You'll then be entitled to some services free of charge, including:

  • free annual gas safety checks
  • bills in different formats, such as large print and Braille
  • quarterly meter reading services
  • priority in an emergency

Protection from disconnection

You shouldn't have your electricity or gas supply cut off during the winter months (October 1 to March 31) if:

  • you have a state pension and live alone
  • you live only with other people who are on a state pension or under the age of 18
  • the household includes someone who is disabled or has a long-term illness

In addition, most companies will avoid cutting off the supply if the household includes someone who is vulnerable because of age, health or disability.

If you're in this situation, contact your fuel supplier as quickly as possible. The supplier will have to follow various stages before they're allowed to disconnect you. Contact them at the earliest possible time to talk about how to prevent disconnection.

If you have a complaint about your fuel supply company, contact it directly.

Help with water bills

If you or the person you care for are having difficulty paying water bills, there are a number of ways to find help.

The first step is to contact your water company to explain the problem. Its contact details will be on your bills or any letters it has sent to you. The Ofwat website also has the contact details for water companies.

What to do about payment problems

Ask your water company if it has any payment options or plans that could be of use to you. For example, you may be able to pay off your bill in instalments. Some water companies can offer you help from their charitable trust schemes. In some cases, there will be schemes that match whatever payments you can make. In other words, for every £5 you can pay, they will match it with £5.

You may want to consider having a water meter installed. The installation would be free of charge, but check first whether it would actually reduce your bills. The water industry regulator, Ofwat, has a calculator on its website that allows you to check whether your circumstances merit having a water meter installed.

If you're on Income Support, Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance or Pension Credit and you're in arrears, you can ask for payments to be made directly from your benefits to the water company. This scheme is called Water Direct. There are rules about the amount that can be deducted from your benefit (this is to ensure that deductions aren't too high).

There's another scheme called WaterSure for some vulnerable groups. You or someone in your household would need to be receiving a means-tested benefit and either:

  • have responsibility for three or more children under the age of 19 and in full-time education living in the property; or
  • have a medical condition that requires significant additional use of water

If you qualify for this scheme, you'll pay no more than the average household bill for your region, even if you use more than the average amount of water.

What to do if you're in debt

As well as contacting your water company to discuss payment options, you can get advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau or other debt advice organisations, such as National Debtline on 0808 808 4000.

Do not ignore letters warning you that legal action may be taken against you. Get advice so that you can resolve the matter. Ofwat has guidelines about how water companies should deal with customers who are in debt. Use these guidelines to find out the best way to deal with your payment problems.

Complaints about water companies

Every water company has a complaints procedure. Ask your water company for a copy of its procedure if you'd like to make a complaint. If you've made the complaint but are still not satisfied, contact the Consumer Council for Water and ask it to investigate your complaint.

Help with heating if you're on a low income

If you're on certain benefits you will receive an extra cold weather payment if the temperature where you live is (or forecast to be) 0ºC or below for at least seven consecutive days between November 1 and March 31. The payment is £25 a week for the winter of 2009/10.

The benefits that will make you eligible for this payment include:

  • Pension Credit
  • Income Support
  • income-based Jobseeker's Allowance
  • income-based Employment and Support Allowance

If you're claiming because you're on Income Support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance or income-based Employment and Support Allowance, you must also:

  • be receiving a disability or pensioner premium
  • be responsible for a child under five; or 
  • be receiving Child Tax Credit that includes one of the disability elements

Fuel Direct

This is a system that allows people on certain benefits to have money deducted from their benefit and paid directly to gas or electricity suppliers. You will be allowed to do this if you're receiving Pension Credit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance or income-based Employment and Support Allowance.

A sum of £3.25 a week can be deducted from your benefit to pay off the arrears, as well as a further amount for your current costs. In some cases, the deduction can be made without your consent but there's a maximum amount that can be deducted from your benefit.