Advice column

advice column
 
Our advice column features common queries along with advice and information about what you can do to resolve them. 
 
If you have an issue that you are trying to resolve and it is not covered below you can email us for advice.

June 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.Advice column universal credit web

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 your local Citizens Advice.

Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk


April 2017

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, who will help you to resolve the situation.

For further advice, contact your nearest Citizens Advice.

Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk


Sick pay 

March 2017

"I took 7 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.

Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk


Phone contracts  

February 2017

"I recently signed a two year phone contract with a new network provider but the reception in my home is terrible. Is there any way I can get out of the contract, or have I just got to stick with it?" 

While poor signal doesn’t give you a right to cancel your contract, you should be able to make a case to your phone company to end it.

If you bought your mobile online or over the phone within the last 14 days, you can cancel the contract without needing a reason by contacting your provider.

But if you bought it in store or have had the phone for longer, you’ll need to ask to leave the contract.

Contact the company and explain the problem. They may give you a device which can boost your signal.

If this doesn’t work, you can ask to terminate the contract. However they will usually ask you to pay an exit fee, which can be as much as the remaining cost of the contract.

Paying the exit fee could allow you to terminate the contract immediately, but if you don’t want to pay then make a complaint using their complaints procedure.

This can take time, but if you haven’t got a resolution after 8 weeks, ask an Alternative Dispute Resolution Service to intervene. An adjudicator will make a decision on releasing you from the contract.

For further help, call the consumer service helpline on 03454 04 05 06 or contact your nearest Citizens Advice.

 

Money worries

January 2017

"I was made redundant last month and I've already started to fall behind on my bills. I'm looking for work, but is there anything else I can do so I don't end up in debt?" 

There are steps you can take to avoid your bills from building up.

First, check that you’ve been paid any redundancy money you’re entitled to - you might get statutory redundancy pay and possibly contractual redundancy pay if you’ve been in the job two years or more. This should be evident on your final payslip, but if it’s not contact your employer.

Then look at ways to boost your income. See if you’re eligible for benefits like Jobseeker’s Allowance with Citizens Advice’s benefits calculator. You could also check if you can make savings on your bills, for example by switching to a cheaper gas or electricity deal.

Now look at how much money you have coming in and compare it to your essential spending. Priority bills include your rent or mortgage and council tax, and should be paid first as there can be serious consequences for missing payments.

If you own your home, contact your mortgage lender to see if you can negotiate on your monthly repayment. You could also see if your credit card provider will negotiate on repayment amounts to give you some breathing space.

For further help understanding managing your money, contact your nearest Citizens Advice

Also see our online advice about getting help with your bills.

 

Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk


Cut the costs of your energy bills

"I'm worried by how much money I spend on gas. My home is draughty and I turn the heating on even in summer. How can I cut my bills?”

The good news is that there are a few different ways you can use less energy, and also pay less for what you use.

Start by finding out if you can get a lower price for your gas. Find a copy of your latest bill so you can see how much you're paying per unit. Then use Citizens Advice’s online energy price comparison tool at https://energycompare.citizensadvice.org.uk/ to check if a different supplier is offering a cheaper deal. 

If you do find a better offer, call or email the new supplier and ask to move to the tariff you’ve identified. They’ll inform your old supplier and switch you over to their supply. This normally takes 17 days. 

You should also look into improving your insulation, such as getting draught excluders or cavity wall insulation. Energy Champions at Citizens Advice can help explain what could work best for your home and the potential costs involved.

Depending on your circumstances, you may be eligible for financial assistance to help you meet the cost of your bills, as well as any improvement works to your home.

For further information and help visit Citizens Advice

energy thermostat



Holiday problems
 
August 2016
 
I’ve just come back from a package holiday where our hotel was miles away from where we booked. We couldn’t contact anyone to change hotels, and had to pay to travel back and forwards to the destination we’d booked. Can I claim compensation?

It’s reasonable to ask for compensation when you haven’t got the holiday you paid for.

Your accommodation should be as agreed. If not, it’s usually considered a breach of contract.

You can’t claim the total cost of the holiday, but you can ask to be reimbursed for the extra travel costs, plus a fair sum for the change to your holiday.

Start by writing an email or letter to the tour operator’s customer services department. Give your booking reference number, explain your grievance and specify the amount of compensation you’d like.

As evidence for your claim, include the details of when you tried to contact your tour operator while you were away, and copies of any taxi or car hire receipts.

The firm may come back with an initial offer that is lower than what you are asking for, so be prepared to negotiate.

If you’re not offered any compensation, check your tour operator’s website to see if they belong to a UK trade body, like ABTA. If they do, you can lodge a new complaint through the trade body’s website. The tour operator is obliged to respond to the complaint.

Should you still not receive a satisfactory response, contact the Citizens Advice consumer service or visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk for guidance on your next steps or drop into your your local Citizens Advice.


Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk

Training scams

July 2016

I’ve applied for a job at an accountancy firm, but they’ve emailed to say that I would need to take a three month training course which costs £4,000 first. I’m keen on the job, but should I pay for the training? 
 
Some employers do ask you to pay for training, but will normally take the cost from your wages rather than asking you to pay in advance.

Asking for up-front payments is one of the classic signs of a scam, so it’s important you do some research on the firm before parting with any cash.

Start by checking if they have a website. If there isn’t a website, they are unlikely to be legitimate.  Pay close attention to their email address too - look to see if they are using a personal email account such as Gmail or Hotmail, rather than one that’s branded.

Next, check how they describe their company - if they are an Ltd or Plc they should be listed on the companies house website. If you can’t find them there, they probably aren’t real.

You can also look the firm up on the internet to see what people are writing about it. People who suspect a scam or have been scammed, will often post on forums or social media. Genuine companies will usually have client reviews outside of just their own website.

If you spot something that doesn’t sit right and you want a second opinion, contact the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 040 506. If you think it might be a scam report it to Action Fraud

Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk.


Pensions and tax
 
May 2016
 
"I’m 55 and looking into my plans for retirement. I want to cash-in part of my defined contribution pension pot worth £60,000 but I’m confused about tax. How much can I take out of my pension pot tax-free and how much tax will I pay on the rest?" 
 
Pensions are taxable income, however special rules mean you can usually take up to 25% of your pension pot tax-free. 

You can take your 25% tax-free lump sum out of your pension in one go. For your pension pot of £60,000, if you take a 25% tax-free lump sum you’ll get £15,000 tax-free. For the other £45,000, you’ll need to buy an annuity or drawdown product, which is subject to tax.

If you don’t want to take your 25% tax-free lump sum in one go, another option is to take multiple cash lump sums (UFPLS), rather than buying an annuity or a drawdown product. If you do this, you will get 25% tax-free of each lump sum. For example, if you were to take £1,000 per month out of your pension, £250 would be tax-free. The remaining £750 is taxable.

How much tax you pay on the rest of your pension will depend on how much you “earn” in any one tax year. This includes your state pension and some earnings from investments, such as property or savings. If your total income is less than your personal allowance of £11,000, you won’t pay any tax. If it is above £11,000 you’ll be taxed at 20, 40 or 45% as usual.

To find out more about your pension options, visit www.pensionwise.gov.uk

Pension Wise is a free and impartial government service.
 
Phone 0800 138 3944 to book a free appointment with Pension Wise to get guidance over the phone or face to face. You’ll talk about your pension options and what you can do next.
 
At the end of your appointment you’ll get a printed summary of the options and next steps you need to take.



 

Priority debts
 
March 2016 

"I recently lost my job and fell behind on several bills including my council tax, electricity and credit cards. I’m back in work and keen to start paying off my debts, but can’t afford to pay them all straight away.

What should I pay off first?"

 
First off, draw up a list of who you owe money to, how much you owe, and which of these are ‘priority debts’.
 
Priority debts include your rent or mortgage, gas and electric and council tax. These debts should always be paid first as delaying payment can have serious consequences such as having your energy supply cut off, or losing your home. You can use any spare income to tackle your credit cards and personal loans. 
 

You’re now ready to start negotiations with your creditor. Put together a letter - otherwise known as a “financial statement” - explaining why your ability to repay has been affected, including a full breakdown of your monthly income and outgoings and what you think you can pay. To work out exactly how much you can afford to repay, you’ll need to compare your monthly income to your essential outgoings and see how much money you’ve got leftover to put towards your debts. Citizens Advice has an online budget tool which can help.


Send this letter to your creditors and they will use the information to help settle an affordable repayment plan with you.

For more guidance on putting together your budget and financial statement, go to www.citizensadvice.org.uk or contact us on 03444 111 444 or drop into your your local Citizens Advice.
Get your finances heading in the right direction
 
You can also download our booklet Get your finances heading in the right direction below, which is packed with information, tips and advice about how to blitz your budget, get the best deal on your energy supplies, water down your water costs, sort out debts and maximise your income.

 

Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk.

 

Carer's Allowance


April 2016

"My father recently had a stroke and I have cut down my working hours to care for him. He receives sick pay, but we are struggling financially. Is there any help available for us?"

Financial support is available for people when they become ill, as well as for their carers. What is available will depend on your circumstances.

Your father may be eligible for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) to help with his daily living and mobility costs. His eligibility will be assessed on how his condition affects him, and what support he needs.

To apply for PIP, your father can call the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and then complete the form he is sent. He can request a form by post, but it is usually better to start the claim over the phone, as PIP payments are backdated from the day you made your claim. 

There may also be help available for you as his carer. Carer’s Allowance is a financial assistance for people who have less time to work because they are caring for someone. If you earn £110 a week or less from your job after tax, and care for your father for 35 hours a week, you may be eligible.

You can make an application on the gov.uk website. To claim Carer’s Allowance, your father needs to be in receipt of the component of PIP which covers living costs (as opposed to mobility costs).

If you need help or information on applying for any of these benefits, contact us on 03444 111 444 or drop into your your local Citizens Advice or go online at www.citizensadvice.org.uk.


Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk


Energy back billing

February 2016

“I’ve just received a £2,000 gas and electricity bill for payments going back two years. I’m not sure if I owe this money - what should I do?”

The first thing you should do is work out whether your energy supplier has made a mistake.

Your supplier may have the wrong meter reading or your meter may not be working properly. They may even have sent you someone else’s bill. Take a meter reading then call your supplier to discuss your bill.

If your supplier hasn’t sent you an accurate bill for more than a year, they shouldn’t ask you to pay for more than 12 months’ usage. This is the ‘back-billing’ principle, which applies to all suppliers.

If you think your supplier is at fault but they are still trying to charge you for energy used more than 12 months ago, make a complaint. They should look into your case and provide an explanation.

You may find that your supplier has billed you for the right amount and they are not at fault, particularly if you haven’t provided regular or accurate meter readings. In this case you will probably have to pay some or all of the money. If you don’t think you can afford to pay all at once, ask for a repayment plan. Tell your supplier how much you can afford each month. Be ready to give details of your income and regular spending. You may find it helpful to send them this information in writing too.

If you feel that you need further advice or help negotiating with your supplier, get in touch with the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 040 506 or drop into your your local Citizens Advice.
 

Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk.



 
Maternity entitlements
 
January 2016
 
I'm a self-employed woman and I’m thinking about starting a family. Am I able to take paid maternity leave?

Maternity entitlements are different for self-employed women but financial support is still available.

Self-employed women who have a baby may be entitled to a total of 39 weeks Maternity Allowance. The maximum weekly rate you can receive is £139.58 but it does depend what your individual circumstances are.

In order to get the full amount you need to have worked (either employed or self-employed) for at least 26 out of the 66 weeks prior to your baby's arrival. You should also have paid National Insurance contributions for at least 13 of those weeks and are required to have earned an average of £30 per week over 13 of the 66 weeks.

However, if you don’t meet all of these criteria it’s possible that you’ll still be able to receive some support.

You can put in a claim once your pregnancy reaches 26 weeks by filling in a MA1 claim form online or popping it in the post. The earliest you can receive the first payment is 11 weeks before your baby is due, or you can elect to start it as late as the day after the birth.

Employees often have ‘keeping in touch’ days and the same stands for self-employed workers. You can work for up to 10 days whilst receiving Maternity Allowance, but go over this threshold and you risk losing your allowance altogether.

If your household income isn’t enough to cover your costs you might also be entitled to further financial aid such as the Sure Start Maternity Grant or income-related social security benefits. 
 
If you feel that you need further advice go to www.citizensadvice.org.uk or contact us on 03444 111 444 or drop into your your local Citizens Advice.


Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date advice, please visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk.

 

 

 

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