Shock energy bills could be a thing of the past

The energy watchdog has announced that no supplier can charge for energy debt that's more than a year old. We explain what's changing and to do if you're struggling to meet the rising cost of gas and electricity.

Love Money
Last updated: 6 March 2018 - 5.29pm

Households will soon have better protection from massive backdated energy bills under rules being introduced by the energy watchdog this May.

Back-billing occurs when a household has been undercharged for their energy over a period of time.

In some situations, the customer is at fault, but often the error is down to suppliers underestimating bills or not investigating a technical fault with a meter.

Regardless of whose fault it is, you could rack up massive bills if you go a long time without an updated reading and your usage is far higher than your estimates.

These bills can cause significant distress, especially for vulnerable customers.

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Better protections in place

Last October, Ofgem warned that many customers were falling fall thousands of pounds in debt before being made aware of the issue.

At the time, Ofgem called on energy suppliers to do more to monitor customers' debts and stop them falling too far behind.

“We want the industry to demonstrate that it is identifying and supporting these customers in a timely way. We will be monitoring suppliers to make sure they make long-term improvements on bringing down debt," Ofgem said at the time.

Now, it's has announced that suppliers can no longer charge catch-up bills for energy that's more than 12 months old.

"Getting billing right is an essential part of customer service, and it's unfair that consumers should be left out of pocket when through no fault of their own they're issued with a shock bill from their supplier," Ofgem said.

It's worth noting that this is more a formalising of the process rather than a completely new rule: up until now, the 12 months ban existed as a voluntary agreement that excluded all the smaller suppliers. 

[Read more: 'Thousands' owed council tax refunds after paying unnecessarily]

Use free helplines and websites

The maze of benefits and grants available to those that are struggling with their energy bills can be hard to navigate.

Using a free helpline or visiting these websites can make what support is out there, and available to you, much clearer.

Energy Savings Advice Service

The Energy Savings Advice Service offers impartial advice on how to cut energy bills, and can explain things like the Energy Company Obligation, which can offer certain lower income households free energy-saving improvements to their homes. 

The service is provided by the Energy Savings Trust.

You can get in touch via the helpline on 0300 123 1234 (England and Wales) 9am to 8pm Monday to Friday, Saturday 10am to 2pm.

Or 0808 808 2282 (Scotland) 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday. Alternatively you can email energy-advice@est.org.uk.

Turn2Us

Turn2Us is a charity that helps people in financial trouble get access to benefits, grants and other financial help online and over the phone.

The website features a benefits calculator and grants search as well as helpful information and resources.

But if you can’t access the internet you can use the helpline on 0808 802 2000, which is available 9am-8pm Monday to Friday, and speak to an impartial advisor.

Citizens Advice Bureau

The Citizens Advice Bureau helps people resolve problems with debt, benefits, employment, housing and much more.

So if your problems with energy bills encompass a lot of other issues you can look for information on the website in the form of its Advice Guides, call the helpline for your area or visit a local office.

Gov.uk

The Gov.uk website contains details about all Government departments and will have all the up-to-date information about benefits including heating and housing as well as others that could help your situation.

If you were born before January 5 1953 and claim the State Pension, you should have automatically received a Winter Fuel Payment of between £100-£300.

If you don’t claim the State Pension and believe you qualify, you can put in a claim by filling out this form if you reside in the UK, and this form if you live/are planning to live in the EEA (Economic European Area) or Switzerland.

Those eligible can even claim for past winters.

An extra cold weather payment will be paid out if your local temperature is recorded or forecast to be an average of zero degrees Celsius, or below, for seven consecutive days.

To be eligible, you usually have to be receiving some form of means-tested benefit such as Pension Credit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance or income-related Employment and Support Allowance, usually related to age and/or disability.

Eligible claimants are entitled to £25 for every seven-day period of very cold weather between November 1 and March 31. You don't need to claim this, you should automatically be sent it.

The Gov.uk website also has its own energy grants calculator to help you work out what you can get based on your circumstances.

Also for those in Northern Ireland check out the Warm Homes Scheme (0800 988 0559) and if you live in Wales you can get help from Nest (0808 808 2244).

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Energy trusts and funds

Some energy providers contribute to a trust or fund which is administered by a charity. These can provide grants to clear debts including energy bills.

British Gas, EDF and npower all contribute to a pot for their customers, but British Gas is the only one that accepts applications from people who are supplied by other companies. 

In order to be considered you will need to fill out an application form detailing your circumstances. Here are the websites to access the forms:

You can also request a form to be sent to you by calling 01733 421060 or by emailing Charis (the charity which administers all these schemes) on applications@charisgrants.com.

SSE has a slightly different pot of money to help its customers called the Priority Assistance Fund. Unlike the other schemes this doesn’t require an external application process carried out by an independent administrator. Instead, it happens in-house and staff are given the power to identify those who may be eligible for assistance. 

Contact the team on 0345 026 2658 or email priorityassistanceteam@sse.com.

Contact your energy provider

If you think you will have problems paying your energy bill you should contact your provider.

Energy providers will have a section on their website explaining what it can do to help.

Your provider may be able to assist with a payment plan, freeze accumulated debt for a period and offer energy saving advice as well as details of the benefits that you might qualify for.

Here are the links to the major providers:

The Warm Home Discount Scheme, for example, provides a one-off payment towards your electricity bill and this year it is worth £140.

Pensioners that meet certain criteria, known as the ‘core’ group, get this benefit automatically through the Department of Work and Pensions.

But energy companies will also pay the discount to other vulnerable people as well. Each supplier will have their own rules on who from this ‘broader’ group can get this help and they must apply for the discount direct.

Additionally, individual companies tend to offer energy-saving measures to all of their customers from time to time, so it is well worth giving your supplier a call to see what you’re entitled to.

Compare energy tariffs

The helplines and websites listed above won’t be able to suggest a better tariff to help you avoid falling into financial difficulty.

We have all the up-to-date news on energy price changes, energy articles and guides plus all the details of the cheapest and longest lasting tariffs as they become available.

Not happy with your energy supplier? See if you can switch and save hundreds