Energy bills: 'Low awareness' of help

Gas hob The Home Heat Helpline says about 3.4 million UK households could benefit from some assistance, like grants for insulation and new boilers

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Fewer than half of UK households eligible for help with their energy bills are aware that they qualify for assistance, according to a survey.

The Home Heat Helpline found 49% of the 1,951 people surveyed realised they qualified for some form of help.

The findings by the independent advice service come amid rising energy prices and cold weather in recent weeks.

Energy minister Greg Barker urged people to check if they were eligible for help such as home insulation.

The Home Heat Helpline, funded by six major energy providers and established by the Energy Retail Association, estimates that about 3.4 million household in the UK could benefit from some form of assistance.

It provides a free, confidential service that connects people on low incomes with support which it says is worth about £160 on average.

The assistance available includes grants for insulation, new boilers, discount and rebate schemes.

The research, conducted online on behalf of the helpline in October 2012 by the New Policy Institute and Censuswide, found that 32% of those surveyed did not know whether or not they qualified for assistance.

Regional disparity

Just 38% of respondents had contacted their energy supplier or the Home Heat Helpline to ask whether any help was available.

Some 42% of respondents in Scotland had contact their supplier or the helpline, as had 40% in the north-east of England and 36% in south-east England. But only nine per cent of those in Northern Ireland had checked.

Christine McGourty from the Home Heat Helpline said people could ring on behalf of friends, family and neighbours.

Energy and Climate Change minister Greg Barker said: "We know people are struggling with rising energy bills but a warm home should be a given, not a luxury."

The helpline established a "safety net" procedure in 2004 to ensure vulnerable customers were not disconnected from gas or electricity supplies.

Various criteria are used to determine those who qualify for help, although they tend to include household incomes of less than £16,000.

Risk of illness

Householders may have children, receive some other form benefits, have a disability or be elderly.

The helpline can be reached on 0800 33 66 99.

Earlier this month, Save the Children said children living in fuel poverty - or families unable to heat their homes without spending more that 10% of income - were at greater risk of suffering conditions like asthma, respiratory problems and other illnesses.

It said many eligible families in Wales had never heard of the Warm Homes Discount (WHD) programme.

Last year the government said it wanted to introduce legislation to make bills simpler for consumers.

Its proposals included an element of compulsion, ensuring customers are put on the cheapest deal in the price plan that they choose.

Labour has called for a new energy regulator to be created.

In December, the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee told the energy regulator, Ofgem, stronger action was needed to ensure energy customers received a fair deal.

Energy firms price change graph

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