Utility arrears

Fuel bills such as gas and electricity are a priority because utility companies can disconnect you from your supply if you are in arrears.

gas bill

Utility companies can disconnect you if you don’t pay your bills. There is no court involved in this process.
The utility company has to send you a disconnection notice before they cut you off, giving you at least seven days written notice. The notice has to be sent at least 28 days after your bill.

As long as you can make payments towards your fuel consumption and something towards the arrears, they are unlikely to disconnect you, but you should contact them as soon as you find yourself in difficulties.

Utility bills are a priority payment along with your mortgage or rent and council tax. If you have other creditors, you may need to reduce or stop payments to them.

Some groups of people are given special consideration because they are regarded as vulnerable. These include:

  • people over retirement age
  • the disabled
  • people with long-term health problems
  • those with severe financial difficulties.
The Home Heat Helpline offers advice to people on a low income and helps those in the groups named above to protect them from disconnection. Contact the Home Heat Helpline on 0800 33 66 99.
  • unpaid billsExplain your circumstances to the utility company. They must follow certain licence conditions regarding how they deal with customers who experience financial difficulties.
  • You should be able to set up a payment plan you can afford, have a certain amount deducted from your benefits if applicable or given the chance to pay for your usage through a credit meter or a prepayment meter.
  • Draw up and income and expenditure sheet to come up with an amount you can afford and make sure you can afford it for as long as you need to keep it up to pay off the arrears in monthly installments.
  • You can contact social services at your local council or the DWP for help. The fuel company will delay cutting you off if they are told the social services or DWP are looking into your case. In some cases, social services are able to help families with children with fuel payments.
  • You could cut down your fuel bill by switching to another provider. There are a number of online comparison sites.
You cannot be disconnected for utility bills from previous addresses, however, unpaid bills may make it difficult to use the same supplier at your new address.
You cannot be disconnected for unpaid water and wastewater bills, meaning they can be treated like other creditor and not as a priority payment.
Utility companies can still take you to court to recover debts such as water bills and utility bills from previous addresses.
Prepayment meters
  • electric meterIf you haven’t been able to keep up your repayment plan, you may have to accept a prepayment meter if you want to keep your gas or electricity supply.
  • With a prepayment meter, you pay a certain amount towards the arrears as well as paying for your current usage.
  • Payments are made using a key or token for electricity and a smart card for gas. These can be charged in a number of places such as garages and shops.
  • Prepayment meters can work out more expensive than credit meters and if you run out of credit, you will run out of fuel. For this reason, you may want to look at alternatives.
  • A utility company cannot insist in a prepayment meter as long as you keep up your agreed repayments, but you can opt to have one installed if you wish.
Benefit deductions
  • If you are on certain benefits, you could have the arrears deducted from your benefits instead of installing a prepayment meter if you prefer.
  • Small weekly amounts will be deducted from your benefits towards the arrears. Qualifying benefits include income-based JSA or ESA, Income Support and Pension Credit.
  • The DWP will determine the amount that can be deducted. This may be more economical and convenient than a prepayment meter and you cannot run out of fuel. Speak to the Jobcentre and your utility supplier about this option.

Money

Always deal with priority debts first. If funds are limited, non-priority creditors can wait!
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Help and grants

There are some charitable trusts set up by utility companies, which give grants to some of their customers to help them pay for gas and electricity arrears.

Visit EDF Energy Trust or get the Utility Trusts and Schemes booklet from British Gas Energy Trust.

Consumer Futures is responsible for protecting the interests of electricity and gas consumers.