NED News Adviceline: Autumn 2014

I use heating oil to power my home, but I’m struggling to cover the cost. It’s hard for me to cut my energy use to save money, as my daughter’s asthma gets worse if I turn the heating down too low. Is there anything I can do to cut my bills?

Households who use heating oil often struggle to cut their costs as they don’t have the same ability to shop around as those who are on grid.  But there is action that you can take to cut costs and save money, without having to turn down the heating.

Stocking up on oil now, before temperatures start to drop, can help you to avoid the high costs of buying during the winter. The cost of oil is usually at its highest in December, January and February, as extra demand can push up the cost. Make sure you shop around for the best price and ask suppliers about flexible payment options if you struggle to pay the whole cost up front.

Joining an oil club is also a great way of saving money as you can often get a better price by clubbing together with others and buying in bulk. This will also cut down the number of trips the oil supplier needs to make, which could reduce delivery costs and is better for the environment.

To see if there’s an oil club in your local area, put your postcode into the oil club map at www.citizensadvice.org.uk/oilclubs

It’s also worth checking whether there are any grants or discounts you are entitled to. A quick call to the Energy Savings Advice Service on 0300 123 1234 will help you get to the bottom of that.

My broadband connection is really slow and unreliable. I’ve contacted my provider who has said I’ll need to pay more than £100 to cancel the contract. Is there anything I can do about this?

One of the main ways that you can get yourself a better broadband service is to switch supplier.  It’s become much easier to switch broadband providers in recent years, which in turn has led to better deals for consumers. But, as you have experienced, some companies charge cancellation fees that can go into hundreds of pounds.

Most broadband contracts operate for a fixed term (12 or 18 months, for example), and users can be charged for prematurely ending the contract. It is therefore important to check the terms of your contract before entering the switching process.

If you are looking to move to another company because you are having problems with your broadband service, make sure you tell them about the problems.  Record dates and times of the issues you have had, so you have evidence that shows why you’re ending the contract and switching.  If you have already complained about these problems it is worth reminding the firm of that fact.

Anyone who has come  up against poor quality service or unfair charges from their broadband provider or any other business, can get in touch with our Consumer Service helpline on 03454 04 05 06 or come and see us at your nearest bureau.

HMRC has just contacted me to say that I owe them money as they have overpaid my Tax Credits. I didn’t realise that this could happen, and I don’t have enough money set aside to pay them back. What should I do?

Tax Credits are designed to give working people a little bit of extra income to help guarantee a decent standard of living from work.

Unfortunately, the system by which entitlement to Tax Credits is decided is complicated and can often lead to people falling into debt when they are asked to repay money they’ve wrongly been given by HMRC.

Tax Credits are gradually being phased into the Government’s new Universal Credit system, which is intended to reduce Credit miscalculations and overpayments.

However whilst we wait for the system to change, problems with the current process seem to be getting worse. Last year, Citizens Advice across England and Wales saw a 14 per cent increase in problems relating to debt caused by Tax Credit overpayments.

The combination of pressures on people’s living costs means that being asked to repay Tax Credits at the end of the year can be a real blow. Sky-high energy bills, expensive childcare and wages which are still failing to keep up with costs mean that it can be a real struggle for households make ends meet. The last thing hard-pressed households need is for HMRC to put them in more debt.

Often, HMRC will be willing to work with you to see what you can afford to pay back, but in many cases, poor communication and delays by the agency have led to our clients struggling to get a fair outcome.

If you’re struggling with debt then it’s important to take steps to get on top of your bills. Debt can seem impossible but there’s always a way out of problems.

If you come to us, we will be able to work out a debt management plan with free and impartial advice.

NED News Adviceline: Spring 2014

OFGEM recently announced that finding a better deal on your energy is getting easier. What does that mean for my energy bills?

A ban on complex tariffs is now in force, to help consumers get the best deals claims the energy regulator. In the biggest shake up to the market since competition was introduced in the late nineties, the reforms aim to make the energy market simpler, clearer and fairer. Households who have never switched could save more than £200 per year.

The reforms

Suppliers can now only offer customers a maximum of four tariffs for gas and four for electricity, this means that some existing tariffs will be withdrawn. These changes make it far easier for consumers to compare and find the best deals. Complex deals like charging high rates for energy which then fall as more is used will no longer be allowed.

Energy firms must structure their tariffs in two tiers, as a single unit rate and a standing charge. The unit rate is the cost for each unit of electricity or gas, the standing charge is a fixed amount and is a way to recover the costs of getting the gas and electricity to your home.  Suppliers will be allowed to set their standing charge at zero. Lower standing charges can benefit people who do not use a lot of gas or electricity, higher standing charges benefit people who use more. We expect that suppliers will offer different combinations, so shop around to make sure you get the best deal for you.

Customers on fixed term deals will remain on that tariff until it finishes – increasing those prices during the contract period is now banned and automatically rolling householders on to another fixed-term offer will no longer be allowed. At this end point, suppliers should automatically put you on the cheapest standard tariff available and it’s worth shopping around to check this is the best deal.

If you have a standard tariff, which is a continuing deal that doesn’t have a fixed end date, you will be contacted by your supplier if the terms and conditions are changing. If the tariff is withdrawn you will be moved to their cheapest equivalent by the summer. This is also the case for special tariffs, for example deals for pensioners, though your supplier may choose to retain this as one of their four tariffs.

April will see further reforms to give consumers clearer, more personalised information on energy. Suppliers will for the first time have to write to customers regularly informing them which of their tariffs is cheapest.

The Citizens Advice consumer service can provide general advice about what the reforms mean. If you have a question about what will be happening to your gas and electricity tariffs and when, contact your supplier. You can find out more about tariffs and how to compare prices for gas and electricity from Adviceguide, the self-help website of Citizens Advice.

For the most up-to-date advice, please visit the Adviceguide website or contact your nearest bureau.

My energy supplier has announced price rises. I want to find out if I can get a better deal elsewhere, but I don’t know where to start.

If your energy prices have shot up, you can find out if you can get a cheaper deal elsewhere by switching supplier. You can use a price comparison site approved by Ofgem, or get help from your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

Energy suppliers must give you at least 30 days notice of any price increases, so act fast to make changes before the increases come in. If you decide to switch suppliers, you need start the switching process within 20 days of being told about a price increase, that way your existing supplier can’t enforce the price rise.

Under new rules, if you’re on a fixed term contract and it’s coming to an end, your supplier must tell you between 42 and 49 days beforehand so, if you want to, you can switch suppliers during this time without any penalties.

And if you are on a fixed term contract signed on or after 15th July 2013, suppliers can’t increase prices, unless the price increase was agreed in advance – for example with a tracker tariff. If your supplier breaks these rules you can complain, first to the energy supplier, then to the Energy Ombudsman.

For the most up-to-date advice, please visit the Adviceguide website or contact your nearest bureau.

NED News Adviceline: Autumn 2013

I’m a homeowner, and I’ve been looking for ways to cut my energy bills. I’ve just received a leaflet about the Green Deal – is there anything I should know before I decide whether to sign up?

The Green Deal is a new Government scheme to help with energy saving improvements to your home such as loft insulation, double glazing and solar panels.  The scheme lets you make these improvements without having to pay up-front. Instead, you take out a loan which is repaid through the savings on your energy bills. Like any credit arrangement, the Green Deal is a serious financial commitment, so you need to think carefully about whether it’s right for you.

The loan is attached to properties, not people, so if you move house then repayments will pass to the next owner or tenant. You’ll have to let them know that loan is attached to the property before they agree to buy.

The scheme is designed so that savings always outstrip repayments. But this isn’t a guarantee, so taking out a Green Deal loan may mean that your bills increase. If you’re on an electricity meter repayments will be taken off your credit in small amounts several times a day, so you may find that your credit is used up faster.

If you decide to go ahead, the first step is an assessment of your home, which you often have to pay for. Green Deal assessors and providers must be officially accredited – you can check by looking at the central register at gdorb.decc.gov.uk/consumersearch

If you decide to go ahead after your assessment, there is a seven-day cooling off period .  If you change your mind during the cooling off period, you won’t have to pay a cancellation fee, although you are likely to have to pay some of the assessment cost if work has been carried out before you cancel. Green Deal loans are covered by the Consumer Credit Act, which gives you important rights. If you have a complaint, you should contact your provider. If they can’t sort out your problem, you can contact the Energy or Financial Services Ombudsman.

If you can’t save money through the Green Deal, you may be able to get extra financial help under the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) for energy saving improvements to your home, including solid wall insulation and cavity wall insulation.

Get free, confidential, independent advice from North East Derbyshire Citizens Advice Bureau. See www.adviceguide.org.uk or your local phone book for contact details.

Also get advice about the Green Deal, the Energy Company Obligation and other ways to get help to save energy in your home from the Energy Savings Advice Service on 0300 123 1234

My six year old son has  been diagnosed with autism but, despite having Special Educational Needs, my local authority is refusing to accept our medical evidence and to provide the support he needs.

I want to appeal against the council’s decision but don’t think I can afford to pay for legal advice.  However I understand that since April 2013 changes to legal aid mean I might not get financial support – what can I do?

Civil legal aid helps to pay for the costs of getting legal advice if you’re on a low income. However, the government has made large cuts to the civil legal aid budget and, since April, civil legal aid is no longer available for many types of problems including divorce, as well as particular debt, housing and welfare benefit issues.

It is still available if there is a risk of domestic violence or child abuse; if your home is at risk, or in some other cases.

Fortunately, if you meet the financial conditions, legal aid is still available for people appealing against Special Educational Needs assessments decisions by councils.  In some cases, legal aid is free. In other cases, you may have to pay towards the cost.

Unless you are on certain benefits, your income will have to be assessed to decide if you qualify for legal aid.

Whether or not you are eligible for legal aid, there are organisations you can contact for free advice about SEN appeals. You can find a list of organisations in www.adviceguide.org.uk

If you need to apply for legal aid for a Special Educational Needs problem, you must apply through the telephone gateway service run by Civil Legal Advice on 0845 345 4345.  It is open from 9am to 8.00pm, Monday to Friday and from 9am to 12.30pm on a Saturday. Calls cost no more than 4p a minute from a BT landline. Calls from mobiles are usually more.

If you’re worried about the cost of the phone-call, you can ask an adviser to call you back. You can text ‘legalaid’ and your name to 80010 and an adviser will call you back within 24 hours.

The helpline has a translation service if you would like advice in a language other than English or Welsh.

There is also a minicom service for people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing or speech-impaired and a type-talk service for people with hearing difficulties.

You can also get advice online from their website at www.gov.uk.

It’s important for people to be aware that although Legal Aid has been cut it is still available in certain circumstances. If you have a legal problem it is worth finding out if you qualify for Legal Aid.

I’m behind on my energy bills, credit cards and rent and my phone is ringing constantly with people demanding money.  The stress is getting me down and I don’t know what to do.

The most important thing is not to panic.  Remember that this is a common problem and help is freely available from Citizens Advice.

Dealing with debt is daunting and at times seems insurmountable, but it is better in the long run to tackle your debts rather than taking out more loans.

You first need to get a clear idea of who you owe money to: make a list of your creditors then work out which debts you should prioritise.

The most important debts are those that would have the most serious consequences if you didn’t pay them. You should look to get rent and energy bills sorted first so your home isn’t at risk and so that your water and electricity keep running.

Once you know your priorities, you should try to get a clear idea of how much money you have spare. Make a list of all your income and spending.

Go through your spending line by line and think about any savings that you could make: can you cut any spending? Or switch your energy supplier? Can you walk to work and not take transport?

Next, give your debtors a call. Stay calm and be honest with them: tell them how much you have available and see if you can agree a repayment plan with them.

If you can’t see any spare cash and do not have anything you can sell to makes ends meet, then it is much better to first seek help than to take out a loan. Loans can sometimes end up getting you more into debt rather than helping you.

You should remember that Citizens Advice can help you at any stage, and more advice is available here: www.nedcab.org.uk

NED News Adviceline: Summer 2017

I am about to apply for Universal Credit for the first time, but have been told that there is a six week wait before the first payment. I’m worried that I won’t be able to pay my bills. Is this right, and is there anything I can do?

After applying for Universal Credit, there’s usually a five or six week wait before your first payment, which is explained during the application process.

Although you can’t be paid faster, there are things you can do to help tide you over.

As part of the claim process, you’ll usually attend an interview at the Jobcentre Plus.

At the interview ask if you can apply for an “advance payment” – this is a loan that will be deducted from your future benefits.

You’ll need to show how much money you need for essential bills like food and housing, and explain why the loan will protect you from serious financial difficulty – like being unable to pay your rent.

Alternatively, you can apply for an advance payment through the Universal Credit helpline on 0345 600 0723.

It’s best to apply as early as possible in your claim, as you may be turned down otherwise.

If you are refused an advance payment, you can ask the Jobcentre Plus for a reconsideration. Emergency assistance may be available if you are still turned down – Jobcentre Plus or Citizens Advice can inform of you of your next steps.

For help with your application or more information on managing your money, contact Citizens Advice.


I’ve hired a builder for a loft conversion but he’s now asking for more money to finish the job, despite agreeing a price in an email. What should I do?

Your options depend on whether you got an estimate from the builder, or a quote.

An estimate is a rough outline of costs, while a quote gives exact costs both parties agree to.

If you got an estimate, ask the builder for a breakdown of the new costs – both materials and labour. The builder needs to be able to explain the price rise.

Try and negotiate if you think the new costs are unreasonable.

Asking another builder or a trade association for an estimate could help you decide what’s fair, and where to start your negotiation.

If the builder won’t negotiate, make a complaint to them in writing describing why you think the costs are unreasonable. If they still don’t bring their price down, you can check if the builder is a member of a trade association to see if they can help. Or you could look for an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme – this is an independent third party who can help you to reach a resolution.

Quotes are a legal agreement, so the builder shouldn’t be charging more unless there were unexpected events affecting the work, or an error in their calculations. Contact an ADR scheme if there were no mitigating circumstances, it will help you to resolve the situation.

For further advice, contact your nearest Citizens Advice.


I took seven days off work for flu and my employer won’t give me sick pay. I usually work 21 hours in a warehouse but I’m on flexible contract so my shifts moved round. I called in sick and they took me off the rota for a couple of weeks, and are saying that I won’t be paid. Is this right?

Whatever your contract type, you’re entitled to sick pay if you meet certain rules around the length of your illness and your usual pay.

Statutory sick pay is paid from the fourth day you’d usually be working that you’re off sick. You need to normally earn £112.00 a week or more before tax, and to report your sickness according to your workplace rules like phoning in or filling in a form.

If you’d already agreed to those working hours before you took time off for illness, your employer removing you from the rota doesn’t change your rights – you’re still entitled to sick pay. Your employer may not be aware of their responsibilities, or they may even be trying to avoid paying.

The first step is to ask your employer to fill in the government Statutory Sick Pay form explaining their reasons for not paying you.

Once it’s filled in, call the number for HMRC on the form. They’ll clarify whether you’re entitled and if you are, make sure you’re paid.

If your employer won’t fill in the form, contact HMRC, who have a legal duty to solve issues around sick pay.

For further help and advice, contact your nearest Citizens Advice