Millions of people can’t afford to pay their energy bills. Image: Pexels
Energy bills are more than double what they were at the beginning of 2022, and they are expected to increase again in April. Many households might feel like it is spiralling out of their control – but you have rights as a consumer if you can’t afford to pay.
Regulator Ofgem has rules which mean companies have an obligation to help people who are struggling . Of course, energy suppliers aren’t always sympathetic and you might run into issues while trying to get help.
Hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have had prepayment meters forcibly installed by their energy suppliers last year, for example, as estimated by Citizens Advice. Ofgem has confirmed it has asked all energy companies to suspend the forced installation of prepayment meters, but it is too little too late for many customers.
It’s important to be aware of your rights when you can’t afford to pay your energy bills, so we’ve broken it down to help you understand. Here’s what to do about expensive bills, how to complain to your energy supplier, how to escalate a complaint to the energy ombudsman and where to get further help if you need it.
What if my energy bills are too high for me to pay? Should I complain to my energy supplier?
If your bills are too expensive and you can’t afford them, your energy supplier has an obligation to help, as regulated by Ofgem. They might be able to create a payment plan for you, and you can ask for emergency credit if you use a prepayment meter and can’t top up.
You can request a review of your payments, payment breaks or reductions and more time to pay. Many suppliers have hardship funds to help low-income households (you can find a list of those here). They might also give you advice on how to use less energy or put you on the priority service register if you or anyone in your household is vulnerable.
That all sounds great in theory but any of us who have been stuck on hold to an energy supplier, battling to speak to a real person on the other end of the phone, will know that it’s not always a smooth process. And when you finally get through, who knows what help you’ll get?
Sometimes it is useful to have your complaint in writing, so that you have evidence of when you contacted your supplier. Citizens Advice has an example complaint letter here, and there’s one on Which? here.
If that doesn’t work, you can escalate your complaint. Simon Francis, from the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, advises people to write to their MP as this can often prompt energy firms to act. Because there’s no one like a politician to scare an energy company. You can also bring complaints to the energy ombudsman (more on that later) and contact Citizens Advice for help.
In the most urgent cases, the service’s Extra Help Unit can raise complaints with energy suppliers on behalf of people who may be considered vulnerable or at risk of disconnection.
What do I do if I’m in debt to my energy supplier?
This might not be what you want to hear but you are obligated to pay your energy bills because you have a contract with your supplier. That’s legally binding, we’re afraid. So, if you fall behind on your payments, your energy company can enforce actions such as collecting the debt you owe using a debt collection agency.
But don’t panic – you won’t be cut off immediately and you will get warnings about paying before serious action is taken. If you have fallen behind on payments and are in debt, you should contact your energy supplier to let them know you are struggling. As explained above, they might be able to help you by organising a payment plan that you can afford – giving you a little bit of light relief!
You may be able to get support through the government’s debt respite scheme called Breathing Space. This temporarily gives you legal protection from the company you owe money to. It will freeze most interest, fees and charges on debts and pause enforcement action.
Can my energy supplier force me to have a prepayment meter?
Your energy supplier cannot force you to have a prepayment meter from now on – much to the relief of charities across the country.
Until recently, energy suppliers have been able to force-fit prepayment meters by court warrant. They have used smart meters to switch customers from direct debit payments to a prepayment meter system without even entering your home.
This was allowed under Ofgem rules, and The Big Issue revealed thousands of court warrants had been obtained. Citizens Advice estimates that 600,000 people were forced onto a prepayment meter because they couldn’t afford their energy bills in 2022.
After significant pressure from campaigners, charities, experts and politicians, regulator Ofgem has asked all energy companies to suspend the forced installation of prepayment meters. Magistrates courts in England and Wales will stop hearing the applications from energy firms immediately.
But it is too little too late for many customers who have had a prepayment meter forcibly installed. Citizens Advice saw more people unable to top up their prepayment meter in 2022 than in the whole of the last 10 years combined. People were left in cold, damp homes and facing the added stress of paying higher rates for energy (as prepayment meters are typically more expensive). It is currently unclear whether these people will get compensation.
Can my energy supplier charge me more than the energy price cap?
Unfortunately, your energy supplier can charge you more than the government’s £2,500 energy price cap. This figure is not the maximum amount an energy company can charge – it’s the amount a typical household will pay per year (yes, energy bills are that high).
The cap puts a limit on how much energy suppliers can charge for each unit of gas and electricity. This means if you use more energy than average, your household could be charged more. The cap is going up in April to £3,000 – and bills are likely to go up too. Your supplier will usually let you know if prices change. You can also check if the ‘unit rate’ and ‘standard charge’ have changed between bills.
But if your energy bill looks unusually high, there’s a chance it could be inaccurate. Mistakes happen after all, and it might just be that your supplier has sent you over the wrong reading (phew).
Citizens Advice encourages people to check their bill to see if it is based on estimated usage. You don’t need to pay your bill if it’s estimated – you should send a meter reading to your supplier and get an updated meter reading instead. Sending a meter reading to your supplier every month will help keep your bills accurate.
There are also instances where suppliers bill customers for the wrong meter reading and it could be a mistake. You should look at your most recent bill and find the meter readings on it and compare it with your meter reading.
Is it worth complaining to the energy ombudsman?
If eight weeks have passed since you first reached out to your energy company and no agreement has been reached, you can complain to the energy ombudsman. Ofgem requires all energy companies to work with the energy ombudsman to resolve complaints.
Energy companies should send you a “deadlock” letter referring you on to the ombudsman after eight weeks or if you have reached a point where no agreement has been made. Even if you don’t get a letter, you can still escalate the complaint to the ombudsman.
The ombudsman will pass on the details to your provider. They can make an energy company correct a problem, apologise and explain what happened. They can also make your company pay you compensation and give the company recommendations so it doesn’t happen again.
Ofgem deals with complaints regarding network operators (who run gas and electricity pipes) but you can’t make complaints to them directly about your energy company. Use the energy ombudsman complaints form or call 03304401624.
Can I take legal action against my energy supplier?
Yes, you can take your energy supplier to court. But it is an absolute last resort and comes with risks.
First, you’ll have to have followed all the steps. You’ve contacted your energy supplier and communicated that you are struggling. You’ve approached organisations like StepChange and Citizens Advice for advice. You’ve complained to your energy company and written to your MP. You’ve then escalated your complaint to the energy ombudsman.
If you get the ombudsman’s decision and you disagree with it, you can appeal. But this is only if a mistake has been made or you have new information for the ombudsman (with a clear reason why this was not submitted earlier). Once a review is accepted by the customer, its terms become binding.
The ombudsman’s website says: “We’ll always try to decide on a fair outcome, but if you’re still not happy you can reject our final decision. Then you’ll be free to resolve your complaint by other methods, such as through the civil courts.”
The Child Poverty Action Group’s fuel rights handbook explains there are two types of civil court action in the field of energy rights – ordinary court action and judicial review through the High Court. There are remedies available through the civil courts “depending on the amount of harm or damage involved”.
There is a draft court claim against an electricity supplier in the handbook which you might find interesting to read (a lawyer would set this out and sign it, so don’t panic about drafting your own one!) It explains a case where legal action against an energy supplier would be possible – the supplier removed a family’s electricity meter and left them without power, breaching the contract.
A judicial review is used for “actions against state bodies and regulatory authorities and bodies which may be exercising statutory functions”. This means Ofgem is subject to judicial review, for example.It will come at a cost – court fees are typically based on the amount of money you’re claiming plus any interest. There will also be legal costs and it can be a stressful experience. It would be unlikely for a case to reach court but not impossible. You should seek help from Citizens Advice about whether you have a case and if it is worth pursuing.
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