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Home energy bills are one of the biggest expenses faced by many households.
But if 10% or more of your income goes on paying for your gas and electricity, the government classes you as being in “fuel poverty”.
And this means that you can qualify for grants and cheaper tariffs - called social tariffs - to help you cope.
What is a social tariff and who is it for?
Energy suppliers have been offering their most vulnerable customers cheaper tariffs for some time now.
Called social tariffs, they offer cheaper gas and electricity prices - regulator Ofgem's rules state that they must at least match the cheapest deals available - and extra free services to certain customers.
You may qualify for a social tariff if you are over 60, on means-tested benefits, are living in fuel poverty or are on a low income.
How can I get on to a social tariff?
If you are not already on a social tariff, there is little point applying for one now as they are currently being replaced by the Warm Home Discount.
This is an annual credit the suppliers will subtract from your overall bill, currently worth £120.
There are currently two distinct groups that can benefit from the Warm Home Discount.
- Households that are in receipt of the guaranteed element of Pension Credit
- People on low incomes, living in fuel poverty or in receipt of benefits - in other words, the same people who qualify for social tariffs.
Have social tariffs already been phased out then?
Most social tariffs have been phased out already.
British Gas' Essentials Combined, npower's Spreading Warmth Tariff, Scottish Power's Fresh Start Tariff and SSE's Energycare Plus tariff, for example, have now all been closed to new applicants, while existing customers on these tariffs are being moved on to the Warm Home Discount.
In fact, the only social tariff still available to new customers is EDF Energy's Energy Assist.
It charges all customers the cheaper direct debit rate, even if they use another payment method and also offers an annual discount of £75 for dual fuel customers.
Other features of the tariff include free energy efficiency advice and free or discounted energy efficiency measures.
However, only EDF Energy customers who spend more than 10% of their income on household energy costs each year, or receive either Income Support and/or the Pension Credit, qualify for Energy Assist.
What else do suppliers do to help vulnerable customers?
Gas and electricity providers offer advice on everything from managing energy debts to improving your home's energy efficiency.
Even if your provider no longer offers a social tariff, it is therefore worth contacting it to find out more about how it could help you cope with your bills, and whether you can benefit from the Warm Home Discount.
There may even be a fund to aid those really struggling to cope.
EDF, for example, operates an Energy Trust fund for its customers, from which it can draw funds to help vulnerable consumers clear their gas or electricity debt.
Is there any help available from the government?
The government provides energy efficiency grants, which can fully or partially cover the cost of home improvements such as installing loft or cavity wall insulation, for vulnerable customers in England, Wales and Scotland.
If you are at least 60 years of age, you may also qualify for a Winter Fuel Payment of between £125 and £400.
The Energy Saving Trust can give you more details about what grants may be available to you, while information about the Winter Fuel Payment and how you can apply for it can be found on the DirectGov website.
The 'Home Heat Helpline', which is funded by energy companies, also offers advice about social tariffs, grants for energy efficiency improvements, and benefits.
You can call it free on 0800 33 66 99.