Help with energy costs: what can you do if you can’t pay your energy bill?

Charities have warned MPs that millions of vulnerable households will struggle to heat their homes this winter.

While the energy price cap will drop by 7% from 1 October, most will still be paying more than last winter when you factor in the Government’s £400 energy bills rebate all households received then. Without that it’ll be unaffordable for many, with bills close to double what they were before the energy crisis hit two years ago.

National Energy Action (NEA), Citizens Advice, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition and Fuel Bank Foundation told the Net Zero Committee the impact of this winter is likely to be as brutal as the last. NEA figures show that over 6.3 million households will be in fuel poverty across the UK from October. 

Adam Scorer, chief executive of NEA, told MPs: “Despite the huge support the government put in last winter, the crisis will be worse this winter. Whether they like it or not, government will have to come forward with a package of support to reduce energy bills for the most vulnerable this year.”

Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley also warned MPs. He said: “There is a reality for customers this year. That [government] support is not available. So, for many people, their bills will be very similar this year, and possibly worse for some, than they were last year.”

Without any Government intervention, we’ve full info below on what you can do now if you can’t pay your energy bill and the support available.

And if you’re looking to find the cheapest gas and electricity deals for you, here’s how to do an energy comparison.

1. Speak to your energy supplier ASAP

If you are struggling to pay your energy bills, the best thing you can do is contact your supplier as soon as possible and let them know. Under Ofgem regulations, your supplier must help you if you can’t afford to pay you energy bills. They can give you a few options depending on your circumstances: 

These include:

  • a review of your payments and debt repayments
  • payment breaks or reductions 
  • more time to pay
  • access to hardship funds
  • advice on how to use less energy

If you’re a low-income household on a prepayment meter, you can ask for ‘emergency credit’. You can get around £5 emergency credit on your meter, but this can vary depending on your supplier. The emergency fund usually becomes available when you have around 50p or less on your meter for electricity and less than £2 for gas. 

If you’re worried about your supplier forcing you onto a prepayment meter, Ofgem rules that came into effect this September will put you at ease. Since an investigation by The Times found British Gas was force-fitting prepayment meters into vulnerable homes during the energy crisis, Ofgem set out the following in a new code of practice

There is a ban on the forceful fitting of prepayment meters in high-risk households requiring continuous supply for health reasons, including all aged 75+, those with children under 2, and residents with severe health issues or medical dependencies. 

Suppliers should offer an alternative method of repayment before suggesting moving you onto a prepayment meter.

Firms must try to contact you at least 10 times before a prepay meter is installed and should come out to your home for a welfare visit first.

If you do get moved onto a prepayment meter, your supplier must provide £30 top-up credit to your meter. 

2. Get financial help from your energy firm

Several energy suppliers offer hardship funds. In some cases they include grants that don’t have to be repaid and debt being written off up to a certain amount.

In most cases you need to be an existing customer. But the British Gas Energy Trust offers help to anyone – you don’t have to be a customer. Firms such as Scottish Power Hardship Fund, E.on Energy Fund and EDF Energy Customer Support Fund offer grants to their customers.

Eligibility for a hardship fund can vary and as funds are limited, it can take weeks to process your application. The best thing you can do is before applying, speak to a debt advisor and do an expenditure/ budget sheet. This should include an explanation of how your energy debt has built up, plus proof of income.

3. Get on the Priority Services Register

Being on the Priority Services Register (PRS) means you can get extra support and advice for free if you can’t pay your energy bill, and if an interruption occurs to your electricity, gas or water.

Ofgem says you are eligible if you:

  • have reached your state pension age
  • are disabled or have a long-term medical condition
  • are recovering from an injury
  • have a hearing or sight condition
  • have a mental health condition
  • are pregnant or have young children
  • have extra communication needs (for example, if you don’t speak or read English well).
  • You might still be able to register for other reasons if your situation isn’t listed. For example, if you need short-term support after a stay in hospital. 

You might still be able to register for other reasons if your situation isn’t listed. For example, if you need short-term support after a stay in hospital.

You can apply by contacting your energy supplier. Give them your contact details and as much information as you can about your needs. Or you can use a new dedicated website which makes it easier to be added to the Priority Services Register.

Your supplier can pass your details to your network operator to add you to their register too. Ofgem recommends doing this, especially if you rely on your energy supply for medical reasons. If you have a different supplier for your gas and electricity, you need to contact them both. 

To give you the support you need, the PRS is connected to local emergency services. Also, if you experience a power outage and you rely on gas, electricity or water in your home for medical needs, PRS will deliver portable generators or bottles of water. 

The PRS provides emergency electrical heating and cooking appliances too if there is an interruption to your main gas supply for a prolonged period.

4. Check if you qualify for state help with energy costs

The Warm Home Discount scheme provides a £150 discount on your winter energy bill if you meet the criteria. 

This is a one-off £150 rebate applied to your gas or electricity bill between October and March. Full details via the link. 

Winter Fuel Payments of up to £600 are available if you receive the state pension. How much you get depends on your age and circumstances. 

Cold Weather Payments are for people claiming certain benefits or support for mortgage interest. It’s paid when the average temperature in their area is recorded or forecast to be zero degrees celsius or below over seven consecutive days. You can get £25 per week. 

Cost of living payments of  £900 will be paid to households on certain means-tested benefits. The first instalment has already been paid, with the next £300 due during the autumn. 

5. Keep paying what you can afford

Do not cancel your direct debit, or stop paying energy bills. It will not only leave your energy account in debt – a debt which will have to be paid, it can hurt your credit score – making life more expensive whenever you want to borrow money or take out a new phone, broadband or utility contract. 

It can also lead to future utility providers not allowing you to pay your bills by Direct Debit and in the worst case scenario you can end up with a court summons from your energy provider. 

Gary Rycroft, a solicitor, spells out some of the consequences:  “If you are in breach of your contract ultimately they can cut you off. Your credit score will tank and you run the risk of getting a county court judgement (CCJ) which will make life difficult if you are trying to rent, remortgage or take out a credit card or personal loan – we are talking about being affected for months and years down the line.”

6. What charities could help me with energy costs?

If you need bespoke help, there are charities out there that can offer support. Debt advice charity StepChange offers free, impartial guidance. It is worth speaking to someone if you have no way of paying your bills, as they may be able to help come up with repayment plans and speak to your energy supplier for you. 

Other charities that can offer support include national fuel poverty and energy efficiency charity National Energy Action, Citizens Advice and National Debt Line.

Additional reporting by PA