NED News Adviceline: Summer 2015

I’ve heard that the new pension reforms mean that I will have full access to my pension pot when I turn 55. How do I work out what I should do with my pension savings?

The pension reforms that came in this April give people the freedom to access their defined contribution pension how and when they want. You can buy an annuity, or take your pension out in one go, or withdraw it bit by bit and leave some it invested. Planning for your retirement can be complicated so it’s important to get guidance on your options.

The good news is that the Government has introduced Pension Wise, a new free service offering guidance online, over the phone with The Pensions Advisory Service, or face to face with Citizens Advice. The appointments are pre-booked 45 minute sessions tailored to your individual circumstances. Guidance is impartial, meaning that it will not recommend products or services, but they will describe your options and help you consider their impact.

To get the most out of Pension Wise guidance, preparation is key. First, work out the value of your pension pots. Look at your most recent statement, or contact your provider. Check if there are any restrictions attached. Next, get a state pension forecast, and gather the details of any benefits you receive.

The next step is to work out your likely expenditure. Include the cost of essentials like housing or utilities, and leisure activities. This should give you a rough budget.

Bring the information to your Pension Wise appointment. Your guider will help you think through your circumstances, and present the options available to you.

I bought a new mobile phone six months ago, and I used the signal checker on the website, but I never have any signal at home or work at all. I want to cancel my contract and go back to my old mobile company as I always had good service with them, but my new provider says I’ll have to pay all 18 months of the contract remaining if I want to cancel. I can’t afford to pay that all at once and a new contract, but I also can’t have a mobile phone that never works when I need it. What can I do?

Most mobile phone contracts last 24 months, but often they don’t specify minimum standards of service, so it can be tricky to get out of them without paying a hefty fee. Your best bet is to keep a log of times when your phone doesn’t work. Then contact your service provider and ask them if there is anything they can do. This might solve the problem without you needing to cancel.

It might say something in your contract about how much reception you should get: if so you should be able to cancel the contract without paying. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on what an online coverage checker will say as they’re just a guide and will only ever give an idea of the average signal someone can expect outside in that area.

If the phone doesn’t work in your house or workplace but does work outside, the problem might be with those buildings themselves. In that case you wouldn’t normally be able to cancel without paying. It might be that the signal just isn’t strong enough, so you should ask your provider to carry out a signal strength check.

If there’s no signal in your whole area, you might be able to cancel under the Supply of Goods and Services Act. Very poor service most of the time might mean the network is breaking your contract. Some contracts have terms and conditions which mean they’re allowed to not provide service sometimes, so you need to get advice to see if this applies to you.

Before anything else, contact your service provider, share any evidence of poor service and explain why you should be let out of your contract early. They might well allow you to cancel.

And if you need more advice, contact your local CAB, or call our consumer service number on 03454 04 05 06

My relationship with my partner has broken down and we have two small children. I’m really worried that if this goes to court the judge will favour the children’s mother over me as their father for residence decisions, and that I won’t be able to afford a lawyer who can make sure that I keep my children living with me. What should I do?

Relationship break-ups can be incredibly stressful for any couple, but dealing with the situation sensitively is all the more important when children are involved.

It is not always possible, but the best option is for you to come to an agreement with your partner about the care of your children. Where this doesn’t resolve the issue, the next step is to get the help of a local family mediation service. Decisions made with this service are not automatically legally binding but it can be very helpful if you can use the opportunity to avoid the costly and sometimes acrimonious court system. It is also necessary to attempt mediation before taking the dispute to court.

As an unmarried father, you won’t automatically have a right to a say in your child’s future, even though you may be financially supporting them. This will depend on whether you have parental responsibility for your child. If you were named on your child’s birth certificate since 2003, you’ll automatically have parental responsibility. But don’t worry if you haven’t got it this way – there are other ways you can get it, including asking to the court for an order.

If you are still can’t agree about arrangements for your children, you may have to consider going to court as a last resort. But remember, this will cost you a lot of money and may take a long time. If you want the children to live with you, you’ll need to apply for a residence order. If the children will be living with their mother, you’ll need to apply for a contact order. This will set out the kind of contact you’ll have with your children, for example how often you can see them or take them away on holiday. It can be a good idea to apply to the court for both a contact order and a parental responsibility order at the same time, if you haven’t already got parental responsibility.

Legal aid is not available for the court proceedings of private family law cases. However you may be able to get legal aid to pay for help solving your dispute out of court, through a family mediation service, so this can be the ideal way to make arrangements for your children. Family mediation is an alternative to solicitors negotiating for you but not a substitute for legal advice. You will be encouraged to consult a solicitor during the mediation process to advise you on the personal consequences of your decisions. At the end of mediation, the decisions you have reached can be used as the basis for a divorce settlement, or a legal separation agreement. You can find out more about the availability of legal aid for family mediation at www.familymediationhelpline.co.uk, or on the National Family Mediation website at www.nfm.org.uk.

If you are thinking of going to court to deal with arrangements for your children, you should consult an experienced adviser, which you can do for free at a Citizens Advice Bureau.

NED News Adviceline: Spring 2015

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.

I have been struggling with my finances for a while, and now it’s got to the point where I can’t afford bills like council tax or my mortgage. I’m worried that if I can’t find a solution soon, I might have to sell my home. What can I do?

The months after Christmas can be particularly tough with extra expenses over the festive period putting even more pressure on household budgets. If you are facing New Year debts don’t panic. With the right help there are ways to get on top of your outstanding bills.

Firstly, the earlier you get help with debt problems the easier it is to get them sorted. Trying to carry on as if everything is normal can make things worse, as debts can pile up quickly. Letting your creditors, like your mortgage company or local council, know if you will be unable to pay them is key. Creditors should consider reasonable repayment plans and may be able to offer you more time to pay.

It is important that you prioritise paying certain debts, such as the rent, mortgage or energy bills, first to keep a roof over your head and the heating on. Depending on your circumstances you may be able to get support through benefits, so it is worth checking this with the Department for Work and Pensions. If you are unable to pay your council tax debt the local authority may agree to let you pay a reduced payment over a longer period or even in exceptional circumstances write off the debt, but you will have to keep paying your ongoing bill going forward.

Drawing up a proper budget of your expenses can help identify areas you can cut down on. Before you turn to a loan to cover costs, think carefully and find out what this means for any future repayments and interest that will be due on the loan. Citizens Advice Bureaux offer free, confidential and independent advice, can help work out costs and negotiate with your creditors, and may be able to help you get debt-free by looking at appropriate options available for you.

Someone has been going from door to door on my street and I’m concerned they might not be a legitimate trader. What should I do?

As a general rule it is worth trusting your instincts — if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Scammers often use cold calling and doorstep sales to target victims, so before agreeing to anything or signing anything first tell someone you trust about the offer. Having this conversation with a family member, friend, or a good neighbour could stop you from losing money.

If a trader is offering you a deal take a moment to check out their details. Ask the trader if they belong to a professional organisation, such as TrustMark, and if they say they do, then phone the organisation or look on their website to check this is true.

Don’t agree to a deal on the spot that you have any reason to doubt. Legitimate traders should be happy for you to take their details and say you need more time to make a decision. Avoid handing over money before a job is started. A reliable trader won’t ask you to do this as they should have the money to cover materials until they are paid.

If you are concerned about an offer, think you may have been caught out by a rogue trader, or are concerned for a neighbour, you should call the Citizens Advice Consumer Service on our helpline on 03454 04 05 06. If you’ve fallen for a scam, report it to the Police and you can also report it to Action Fraud.

For further advice call North East Derbyshire CAB or visit your nearest bureau. See our website for details. www.nedcab.org.uk

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