by Melissa Spiers | 2 April 2020
Energy suppliers often get a bad rep, but during this extraordinary time there are a number of ways that the independent regulator Ofgem has made sure they help you out if you’re having a tough time.
We’ve put together some of the ways that energy suppliers can help you, and specifically how they are supporting customers through the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s important to know your consumer rights. Remember that there are multiple suppliers out there, so if you’re not happy with the service you’re receiving, and have less than £500 of debt, you can always switch.
Energy suppliers can help you if you’re considered vulnerable or in need. A vulnerability can be a range of things such as financial issues, bereavement, job loss, mental illness, a disability or older age. Anyone at anytime can find themselves needing a bit of extra help and support – and during a pandemic such as this, many of us may find ourselves with a vulnerability we didn’t expect.
All suppliers have a Priority Service Register (PSR), this gives you access to extra services like accessible bills (paper, large print or braille), regular meter reads and extra help in a power cut. It makes you ‘a priority’. Just call them up and ask to be added (there will be some checks involved)!
The majority of suppliers are obliged to offer a £140 reduction to your winter fuel bill through something called the Warm Homes Discount. Anyone who receives Guaranteed Pension Credit is eligible for this, and some of the large suppliers also offer it out to other groups including people living with a disability, on a low income, or with a child under 5. It’s always best to check with your supplier if you think you could benefit from support. Many suppliers have opened the scheme for next year already so it could be worth popping your name down – visit your supplier’s website and apply online. You can also ask one of our advocates to help you with this – see the bottom of this article for more details.
If you are in debt with your energy supplier and struggling to repay it, your provider is obliged to make sure the repayment plan works to suit you. This means if you let them know your earnings, remove your living costs (rent/mortgage, council tax, food) and then assess the amount to be paid from this. The pre-payment plan should be agreed by both of you, you can always call up and change it if your situation changes.
Many of the big suppliers have a hardship fund (like this one) which they will use to wipe debt to themselves and sometimes other suppliers. This would involve having a financial assessment to show you cannot pay off the debt (the Citizens Advice Bureau can help you with this or a debt assessing charity, such as Step Change). They may also ask if you have had any support for this in the past, many funds do not pay out more than once. If you need guidance on how you might apply for a hardship fund grant, ask our advocates. Be aware that you should only apply for hardship funds if you really need to, and do ask it will appear on your credit record.
Importantly, energy providers should be providing more help at this time — reaching out to contact prepayment meter owners and provide advice during isolation. If you’re worried about going outside, energy suppliers will be promoting their online smart prepayment top-up channels. However, according to Citizens Online, 1 in 5 adults do not have the digital skills to cope with the drastic change of COVID-19.
Things they are at liberty to do include extending discretionary/friendly credit or sending out a pre-loaded top-up card (if you’re on a prepayment meter). Customers can nominate someone to pick up this discretionary credit from the shop on their behalf.
Providers are likely to switch those on credit meters to ‘credit mode’ or extend non-disconnection periods – but this would still have to be paid back and could accumulate a debt, so be careful you don’t create future problems for yourself.
If you’re provider is considering switching you to prepay at this time, they can only do so if it is considered ‘safe and reasonably practical’. Contact us if this is being considered for you and our advocates can look into your circumstances and advise you (see bottom of this article).
If your income has taken a hit due to coronavirus, your energy supplier should be able to review your current circumstances. This includes ‘considering, reassessing, reducing or pausing debt repayment and bill payments for domestic customers in financial distress.’ You will need to be able to provide information regarding a change in income to get your monthly bills or debt repayment lowered (if you go over you may still be charged). Do consider at this point if you are on the best deal!
For customers who have been unable to keep up with payments for a long time, energy suppliers will usually install a prepayment meter to ensure the debt doesn’t get to a point where it can’t be paid back. However, if you have limited mobility, young children or there are no top-up facilities near you, they cannot enforce this. Our Energy Advocates know your rights in regard to pre-payment meter installation.
They cannot disconnect you if you are vulnerable during the wintertime. If you are facing disconnection in Gloucestershire or South Gloucestershire, ask for an advocate's assistance to negotiate on your behalf (see bottom of this article). Disconnection should always be the last resort for any energy supplier.
If for any reason your supplier hasn’t billed you in the allocated time (monthly, quarterly etc.), they are not entitled to ask for this money back if it exceeds 12 months’ worth of costs (called back-billing). I know it seems a bit ridiculous to not have billed someone for so long, but it does happen, and this regulation prevents bills being too hefty when they do arrive. However, if you have obstructed the energy company from reading a meter and providing a bill – then this protection no longer applies, so it pays to behave!
As you can see, the energy market is a complicated place, especially if you find yourself in difficulties during this pandemic. Our energy advocates are trained to know about these sort of things – so contact them for more information: email energyservice(at)ccp.org.uk in Gloucestershire and MikeE(at)severnwye.org.uk in South Gloucestershire. Alternatively, call our advice line on 0800 500 3076 and request that an energy advocate to calls you back.