With temperatures dropping below freezing, lower income households may struggle to stay warm because of worries about the cost of heating their homes in a situation that has been getting worse since the energy crisis began in the autumn of 2021.
Much of the Midlands and north of England have been placed under an amber alert as part of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and Met Office Adverse Weather and Health Plan, indicating a potential risk to life, particularly for those with a pre-existing medical condition or over the age of 65.
The South West, South East, East of England and London have been placed under a less severe, but still serious, yellow alert. The alerts are currently in place until midday on Tuesday 5 December. The Met Office is also forecasting that there is a “chance of a longer cold spell” again later in December 2023.
To maintain a healthy core body temperature of 37℃ during a cold snap, the charity British Red Cross recommends that rooms should be heated to at least 18℃. However, the charity National Energy Action estimates that 6.3 million UK households are currently in fuel poverty and unable to afford to heat their homes to that temperature.
Here, we run through what help is available if you are worried whether you can afford to turn up the heat.
Who can get help with heating costs?
There are several government schemes aimed at supporting UK residents who are receiving certain benefits, the state pension or are on a low income during freezing weather.
Warm Home Discount
This scheme provides some financial help to cover energy bills and is available to those receiving benefits or a low income.
If you live in England or Wales and currently receive the Guarantee Credit element of Pension Credit or are on a low income, the scheme applies to you and you do not need to do anything. If you live in Scotland, you’ll need to apply for the discount. The Warm Home Discount is not available in Northern Ireland.
For the current winter (between October 2023 and 31 March 2024), a one-off discount of £150 will be applied to your electricity bill. However, the money won’t just land in your account. You may receive a letter to confirm the discount will be applied, but if not, you can check your eligibility on the government’s website.
Cold weather payments
In England and Wales, people receiving certain benefits, including Pension Credit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Universal Credit or Support for Mortgage Interest, may get a Cold Weather Payment of £25 when the average temperature in your area is 0℃, or lower, for seven days in a row between 1 November 2023 and 31 March 2024.
In England and Wales, you can get £25 for each seven consecutive days of very cold weather. Find out if you’re eligible for Cold Weather Payments on the gov.uk website.
If you live in Scotland, you may get a Winter Heating Payment of £55.05, which does not depend on the temperature reaching a certain level. In Northern Ireland, the Cold Weather Payment Scheme reopened in 2023, with residents in receipt of certain benefits or Support for Mortgage Interest being eligible for a £25 payment for each seven consecutive day period of very cold weather between 1 November and 31 March.
Winter Fuel Payment
If you’re aged 67 or older (born before 26 September 1957), you’ll likely be eligible to receive between £250 and £600 to help pay your heating bill. This money includes a ‘Pensioner Cost of Living Payment’ of between £150 and £300.
Letters about Winter Fuel Payments went out in October and November confirming the payment will be made automatically. If you did not receive a letter, you can check the criteria and apply here.
Stressed about your heating bill?
It’s a good idea to contact your gas and electricity supplier directly to find out what advice and support it can offer you. Failing to make payments on time or ignoring letters from your gas or electricity supplier can create problems in the future. If you’re changing address over the winter, be sure to pay your final bill before you leave so that your debt doesn’t follow you to your new home. If you stop paying without speaking to your supplier, it could use a debt collection agency to try to collect missed payments from you.
If you’ve fallen behind on your energy payments, you can seek help from charities, such as StepChange or Age UK. The British Red Cross also has a national support line that you can call for practical tips on how to stay warm and to find out about services in your area.
Those in receipt of benefits may also consider the Fuel Direct Scheme. It offers a way for those in receipt of benefits to repay any debt they’ve accrued to energy providers by deducting what they owe directly from their benefits payments. Fuel Direct can also be used to pay bills by those customers already paying off a debt.
According to Citizens Advice, using Fuel Direct “can be more convenient than having a prepayment meter fitted”. However, using Fuel Direct should be considered a last resort because the deductions are taken directly from your benefit payments. You may run the risk of being short of the cash needed to cover more urgent commitments.
On its website, British Gas advises customers considering Fuel Direct that they “should only use this scheme if you have no other way to clear your [energy] debt.”
Find a warm space
The Warm Welcome Campaign can help connect those struggling to heat their home with 7,000 warm spaces in venues across the UK, including community centres and cafés, libraries, churches, arts centres, local businesses, and schools.
If you, or someone you know, are finding it difficult to keep warm at home, visit the Warm Spaces website and search for the venue nearest to you.
Image source: Getty Images
Dive even deeper
The government’s Childcare Choices scheme is expanding, so more families stand to benefit from 15 or 30 hours funded childcare. But accessing what you’re entitled to isn’t always straightforward. We explain how to claim what you’re eligible for.
National Insurance contributions for employees are being cut from 6 January 2024, while cuts to National Insurance rates for self-employed workers will follow in April. Find out how this applies to you, and what difference it could make to your take-home pay.