Lots of the problems we face in life don’t go away. They just get put to one side while we concentrate on more important matters.

The cost-of-living crisis has continued to distract us over the last few months, but for most people, the focus has been on rocketing mortgage rates and the escalating prices at the supermarket. But problems with our energy bills have not vanished.

According to Citizens Advice, there’s been a 17% increase in people seeking help with energy debt in the first six months of 2023. That’s a whopping 46,431 people. Most had average debts over £1,700. Most alarmingly, 7.8 million people are estimated to have borrowed to pay their energy bills from January to June this year.

What’s worse is these figures are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of people I speak to who are in debt with the energy bills are afraid to speak up or don’t know where to turn. I’m deeply concerned that thousands, if not millions of people are suffering in silence and teetering on the brink of going under.

So where are we right now with energy bills? And what can you do if you are worried you can’t pay or your bill is wrong? Here’s my guide.

What’s happening with the Energy Price Cap?

The energy regulator, Ofgem, has just announced that the energy price cap will fall again to £1,923 for the average bill from October 2023.

But what’s the Energy Price Cap again? This is the maximum price that energy providers can charge you for each unit of gas or electricity you use, if you live in England, Scotland or Wales. Northern Ireland has a similar price cap set by the Utility Regulator.

‘What’s an average bill’, I hear you cry?! Well, there’s no such thing as a definitive ‘average’ bill for most people, which is why the Ofgem figure is a guide. The amount you pay will be affected by the energy tariff you are on, the meter you have, the size of your home, the number of people who live there, your specific energy needs and how energy efficient your home is.

Next up, ‘what’s a unit of energy?’ Ofgem measures your energy use in ‘kilowatt hours’ (kWh). Each one of these represents an ‘energy unit’.  Ofgem says that the average units used for a typical household is 2,900 units of electricity and 12,000 units of gas each year. This is going to change in October to a new average of 2,700 units of electricity and 11,500 units of gas. This is presumably because we’ve all cut down on our energy usage over the last year.

Every three months, they work out what the unit price will be and what the average bill will be. Though the latest price cap is a drop of £151 per year on average, it’s still really, really high for many struggling families.

How to get an energy problem or complaint sorted out

It’s remarkably easy to slip in to energy debt without realising it. I recently glanced at my bank accounts and discovered that my energy bill had gone up by a massive £100 a month. I know summer has been rubbish this year, but I didn’t turn the heating back on! It turned out that the problem was due to the firm estimating my bills based on an incorrect reading from the past. But if you don’t know the intricacies of how bills and meters work, it can be really easy to panic and think all is lost.

Citizens advice have a great guide to reading your meter, by the way. I always photo my meter readings, just in case the business disputes they are accurate. Some firms allow you to send them your meter photos too.

So take a deep breath, gather a bit of information to hand and start the process of getting things sorted.

Firstly, check out the support options online. All energy businesses have ‘contact us’ options on their websites. These might often include Q&A pages, live chat, phone numbers and social media links. You may be able to do some things online, like submit meter readings. But for complaints, you’ll need to contact someone direct.

But what if you’re not online? Millions of people don’t have access to online services or find the process frustrating or hard to understand. If you need help making a complaint, free organisations like Citizens Advicemay be able to help you. Alternatively ask a friend or neighbour to help you get in touch with an energy firm. Charities like Age UK have support and advice for people too. If you have someone who might be more vulnerable living nearby, why not pop round and see if they need any help?

Put it in writing. If you want to make a complaint, you may find it easier to get down your thoughts in writing first. I find I often forget the points I want to make when I’m on the phone to a business – and I do this for a living! Writing down some bullet points covering what’s gone wrong can help you stay focused when you make the complaint. Keep things simple and focused on the problems you’d like the business to address. Ask the business if you can email or send them the written complaint if it’s complicated. Don’t forget to tell the business what you want to sort the problem out.

Gather up the evidence. If you have old bills, letters, photographs of meter readings or other information, gather all of the information and keep it in one place. You may find it useful to photograph key documents so you have a record in case they get lost.

Don’t get overwhelmed. Energy bills are complicated, so don’t feel any pressure to become a gas or electricity expert overnight. If something doesn’t make sense, ask the business to explain it in plain English terms.

Meter disputes. If you suspect there’s a problem with your meter, then the energy firm may ask you to take readings over a short period of time – usually seven days. After this point they may send out an engineer if they believe there is a problem. Ask the business to explain what is going on – and don’t forget that you are automatically entitled to compensation for missed appointments.

Financial difficulties. If you’re struggling financially, tell the firm you are in financial difficulties and they should come up with a tailored plan to suit your needs.  You can find a full list of the support that the regulator Ofgem says you can expect here

How the Energy Ombudsman can help

If you’ve received a final decision letter (they must write to you, don’t be fobbed off on the phone) from the energy firm but you’re still not happy with the resolution, the Energy Ombudsman can look at your complaint for free. The same goes for complaints that have not been sorted out despite eight weeks passing. The Energy Ombudsman is part of the Trust Alliance Group – a wider group of free and impartial complaint resolution services. Keep that website handy as they can also help with a range of other disputes, from broadband to parking tickets.

It’s really easy to make a complaint online. Just click on this link and follow the step-by-step instructions. The ombudsman will ask you to explain the problem in your own words and will ask what you would like to sort things out. You’ll also be able to upload supporting documents and photographs too. You can also ask the ombudsman to consider the time and trouble it has taken to make the complaint.

Looking ahead…

This isn’t the last time I’ll be writing about energy problems and bills this year. Over the coming months I’ll be addressing your questions and concerns in this column. So keep in touch with the Mirror and share your stories.

Featured in Mirror – Martyn James


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