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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Overdue utility bills

If you're having trouble paying utility bills, such as gas and electricity, it's important to address the problem. Utility companies (except water suppliers) can cut off your supply. Even a phone bill is a priority if you need the phone to earn your living.

What to do if you can't pay a utility bill

Make a list of everyone you owe money to. These are your ‘creditors’.

Decide which debts to pay off first

Put your list in order of importance so you know which creditors to pay first. Some bills are more important to pay than others because they're 'priority debts'. Utility bills are priority debts - this means the consequences of not paying may be serious.

Sort out your budget

Work out your personal weekly or monthly budget. Note down details of your income and your outgoings. See what you can afford to pay your creditors and decide how much you'll pay to each.

Get in touch with your utility suppliers

Contact each utility company whose bill you haven't paid. Explain your situation and offer to pay an amount you can afford.

All fuel suppliers (electricity and gas) follow a code of practice that means they won't cut off your supply if you agree a payment plan with them and then keep to it. You'll need to ask your supplier for their code of practice details. They should take into account your ability to pay - complain to Consumer Direct if they don't - see 'What to do if you have problems dealing with your fuel supplier' below.

A payment plan could include:

  • paying by weekly or monthly instalments
  • using a pre-payment meter

With a pre-payment meter, you use a smart card, key or token (or sometimes coins) to pay for your gas or electricity as you use it. You recharge your card or key at PayPoint outlets like newsagents and Post Offices. If you have a pre-payment meter installed, remember you'll only get a supply when it's topped up.

Benefits that may help

Fuel Direct

If you've got unpaid bills from a fuel or water supplier, and you receive Income Support, Pension Credit, Employment and Support Allowance or income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, you can ask your benefits office to pay the supplier directly out of your benefit. This system is called Fuel Direct. It covers your current fuel use and also pays off a certain amount of your unpaid bill each week.

If you use Fuel Direct, check your meter reading and tell your benefit office - this will help make sure your supplier's got it right.

Winter Fuel Payment

Most people who were born on or before 5 July 1950 can get a Winter Fuel Payment to help with the costs of keeping warm in the winter. For 2010-11 eligibility depends on your circumstances between 20-26 September 2010. This is an annual tax-free lump sum with most payments made by Christmas.

Other benefits

If you're struggling to pay your utility bills but you're not claiming benefits, it's worth checking to see if you qualify for any. If you're on a low income or you've got extra costs because of your personal situation, there may well be some benefits you could claim.

Other ways to help

Trust funds

Some fuel companies have set up trust funds that may be able to help you pay your fuel bills if you are in financial difficulties. Ask your fuel company if they run a scheme.

Getting the best energy deal

You might be able to save some money by switching to another tariff or another supplier.

What to do if you have problems dealing with your fuel supplier

If you're having trouble sorting out difficulties with your fuel supplier, you can contact Consumer Direct, who will provide advice and information on how to progress your complaint if you are dissatisfied with the supplier's response.

If you are being threatened with disconnection, contact Consumer Direct immediately.

You can contact Consumer Direct on 08454 04 05 06 or you can visit their website for more information.

Water rates arrears

Many water companies send out bills twice a year, in April and October. You can pay your bill all at once or in instalments - perhaps weekly, fortnightly or monthly. If you get behind with your payments the water company can't disconnect your supply, but they can take action to get their money and, if necessary, take you to court.

There is a scheme called 'WaterSure' that may be able to help you. There is a useful flow chart on the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) website where you can check if you are eligible for the WaterSure scheme.

Complaints

If you have a complaint about your water company, you should speak or write to your water company first. Each water company should have a complaints procedure they can send you. Your water company should reply to your complaint within ten working days.

If you are not happy with the outcome then you can complain to CCWater. You can contact them on 0845 039 2837 or visit their website for further information.

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