It feels like each day brings worse news about energy bills and the cost-of-living crisis.

I really do understand that this is the number one concern for millions of people all around the UK. There are no easy solutions, but rest assured, my fellow consumer rights campaigners and I are fighting hard to get us all some practical, realistic solutions to the unaffordable bills that are being proposed.

In the meantime, here’s my advice on what to watch out for with advice about not paying your bills – and what to do to get the help you need.

Don’t protest by not paying your bills

In recent weeks, the ‘Don’t Pay UK’ campaign has been sweeping the internet. The campaign is asking one million people to pledge to not pay their energy bills from 01 October 2022. The object of the campaign is to force the energy firms to the negotiating table and get them to dramatically reduce bills.

As campaigns go, it’s really seductive. But top legal expert Gary Rycroft told me ‘Unlike harnessing people power by going on a protest march, refusing to pay your bill is technically a breach of contract between you and the energy company and could have a huge impact on your finances’.

I have to agree. Energy firms could place charges for late payment on your account or pass you to debt collectors. If you continue to refuse to pay, they could take legal action or insist on a pre-payment meter and (very rarely) cut you off. Paying by direct debit also gets you a bit of a reduction on your bill, which you’d lose if you cancel the payment.

But what can I do if I can’t pay?

There’s a lot of misinformation on social media and on the internet about energy and your rights. But if you are struggling, the process is quite straightforward.

Don’t wait till it’s too late. Ask your supplier for help now if you are worried you can’t pay. Ask them to confirm their proposals in writing so you’ve got time to absorb their suggestions and if you can afford it.

If you are already in debt then say that you are in ‘financial difficulties’. The firm should come up with a tailored plan to help you get back on your feet. You can read what businesses are supposed to do on regulator OFGEM’s website here

You need to provide the business with details of your incomings and outgoings so they can assess the help you need. If they refuse to help, you can take your complaint to the Energy Ombudsman for free.

If you’re being threatened with debt collectors, tell them and the energy firm to suspend all action while you make a formal complaint. This can be about billing issues or lack of help with financial difficulties. The energy firm can call off debt collectors and suspend collection procedures while this happens.

All the main energy businesses have grants and schemes that you can apply to for support (British Gas have one that’s open to everyone). There’s support for people on pre-pay meters too but you have to ask for it. You may also be able to get help from some charities too.

If you are older or more vulnerable, you can apply to go on the Priority Services Register which flags up to your energy firm that you will need more help and support.

Here are my challenges to the energy firms

Ultimately the Government needs to take the lead to tackle this problem. But I’d like the energy firms to commit to three simple promises, to help us all get through the coming months.

  1. Suspend all debt collection and court action activity for at least a year and agree realistic payment plans for those who can’t afford their bills.
  2. Agree a definition of financial difficulties and the options available to all people who fall in to this category so people are treated consistently.
  3. Suspend paying dividends to shareholders during the cost of living crisis unless all people in need are supported.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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