What help can I get paying fuel bills this winter?

old lady bills worry©iStock.com/redhumv

THE weather outside is frightful, and the fire - well, it would be delightful if we weren't worried about how much it'll cost to light it.

Last winter 78% of people on low incomes say they're concerned about the cost of heating their homes, with 26% saying they were unable to heat their home because of high energy prices, according to Citizens Advice.

But high prices and energy inefficient homes and appliances can make the energy bills that much more frightful and the midwinter that much more bleak.

So what can we do to ease the pain? Here are some of the options.

How old are you?

Winter fuel payment

Most people aged 60 or over should automatically qualify for between £100 and £300 tax free through the Government's Winter Fuel Payment scheme.

The amount varies depending on circumstances and age - for example, people over 80 get more; people who live in care homes get less than those in their own homes.

Some people will need to put in a claim to get their money. It's automatically awarded to people aged 60 and above who receive pension credit, or income-based Jobseeker's Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance.

But someone who gets housing benefit, child benefit or council tax reduction - or who doesn't get any benefits at all - will need to make an initial claim. After that, it should come automatically each year.

Are you on benefits?

The majority of help available is for people considered "vulnerable".

Broadly, that means people who receive state pension credit, or income or employment support and have a child under the age of five, or who also get some form of disability premium.

Anyone who satisfies the above criteria is likely to qualify for one of the following:

Warm Homes Discount

The Warm Homes Discount scheme was set to run for four years from April 2011, but it's been extended for at least another year - that is, it's running again this winter.

It's available to customers of the biggest energy providers, their subsidiaries, and white label suppliers, and some of the larger small providers, including:

Eligible customers - those considered vulnerable or at serious risk of fuel poverty - will receive a maximum rebate of £140 before April 2016.

Under the scheme suppliers can also provide energy efficiency and debt advice, debt assistance and other rebates, and help people check for benefit and grant entitlements.

Find out more and how to claim here.

Cold weather payments

This kicks in when the local average temperature is no higher than 0 degrees Celsius for seven consecutive days - which you can check here.

It's paid by the Government through local benefit and pensions offices, straight into the account where a claimants' other benefits go.

People who receive the benefits outlined above will be paid £25 for every weekly cold snap between the start of November and the end of March, usually within two weeks of the freezing weather.

How urgent is it?

The first piece of advice all providers and debt advice groups give is to get in touch as soon as there's an issue, or the possibility of one.

Most of the debt relief and assistance schemes are administered through Charis Grants, which we look at here.

But applying for grants and funds can be a lengthy process, and applicants sometimes won't hear back for a couple of months.

In the meantime, Citizens Advice offer one-to-one help with cutting the cost of fuel bills, and offer advice on agreeing repayment schedules.

Meanwhile the industry has its own advice centre. Homeheat is the Energy Retail Association's not-for-profit service, offering advice on grants, benefits, reduced tariffs and special payment options.

Long-term thinking

Energy efficiency deals and freebies

Energy suppliers are required by Government to provide a certain amount of efficiency improvement for next to nothing.

The ECO Affordable Warmth Scheme provides funding for households that are difficult to make energy efficient - like older properties with solid walls - and for households that suffer from fuel poverty.

It provides new energy efficient boilers, cavity wall insulation, roof insulation and solid wall insulation at reduced or no cost to qualifying households.

Our guide is here.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have each had their own version of the above schemes.

Scotland's Home Energy Efficiency Programme is being refreshed for winter 2015. Previous incarnations of the programme have included the Affordable Warmth scheme for people receiving certain benefits, and the Energy Assistance Scheme aimed at those vulnerable to fuel poverty.

In Wales, Nest covers the same people as the ECO Affordable Warmth Scheme. It also offers referrals to other schemes that offer low- and no-cost energy improvements for those who don't qualify.

Finally, in Northern Ireland, the Affordable Warmth Scheme can help with the cost of insulation, while Northern Irish households earning less than £40,000 can also apply for grants of up to £1,000 to replace boilers that are at least 15 years old.

All these depend on homes being privately owned. People living in social housing, or in low-income rural areas, can qualify for help with insulation and glazing through the Carbon Saving Communities Obligation.

What happened to the Green Deal

The Green Deal offered low cost loans and grants to UK householders wanting to install certain energy efficiency measures in their homes.

But while the Green Deal Home Improvement Fund was ridiculously popular, the main component of the scheme - the loan scheme - failed to capture the imagination of home improvers.

After financing just 15,600 improvement schemes, the Government announced in July 2015 that they were no longer going to fund the scheme.

There's more on how it worked here.

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