Jenny Cooper, 63, is no stranger to counting the pennies.
The grandmother of five gave up her job four years ago to care for her husband when he was diagnosed with cancer.
And since his death in August last year, she has been living on just £77 a week in Universal Credit.
Invaluable: Jenny Cooper talks to Shanara Begum, of Citizens Advice about how she can keep her rapidly rising bills under control
But around £25 — a third of this meagre sum — is now being swallowed up by her pre-payment energy meter, up from £10 last year.
Fortunately, she is today receiving expert advice, albeit in an unlikely place: her local Post Office in New Square Shopping Centre, West Bromwich.
It is one of four locations where British Gas is trialling a pop-up advice service this week to help people tackle soaring energy bills.
Bosses at Britain’s biggest energy supplier hope householders will feel comfortable in Post Office branches, where many already withdraw and deposit cash. When I visit on Monday morning for the launch, a large sign has been placed outside the branch that reads: ‘Struggling with energy bills? We’re here to talk’.
Citizens Advice representatives are busy handing out leaflets about its ‘budgeting buddies project’ and free tote bags to passers-by.
Inside, a screen has been placed next to the counter to provide some privacy for those who want to discuss their finances.
Here in West Bromwich, advisers will be in store on Monday and Wednesday from 12pm to 4pm.
Three branches in London, Glasgow and Cardiff are also taking part, with more to follow in the next fortnight. If successful, British Gas hopes to roll the service out more widely and on a permanent basis.
Around 22 million households have already seen their heating costs rocket after Ofgem raised its energy price cap by 54% last month
Around 22 million households have seen heating costs rocket after watchdog Ofgem raised its energy price cap by 54 per cent last month.
And yesterday the regulator’s chief executive told MPs he expected the cap to rise again, taking the average family bill to somewhere ‘in the region of’ £2,800 a year by autumn.
Just this week E.On’s chief executive warned that up to 40 per cent of its customers are at risk of falling into fuel poverty —spending more than a tenth of their income on energy.
British Gas Pop Up Advice Clinics
British Gas are launching their pop-up advice clinics at local post office around the UK.
Here’s where you can find them:
Cardiff – Thurs 26th & Fri 27th May
Kennington – Friday 27th May
Blackpool – Monday 6th June & Wednesday 8th June
Sunderland – Monday 6th June & Thursday 9th June
Bexhill on Sea – Monday 6th June & Wednesday 8th June
Bethnal Green – Tuesday 14th June & Thursday 16th June
Kettering – Tuesday 14th June & Wednesday 15th June
And half of the 20 worst-hit constituencies are in the West Midlands, where I am today, according to campaign group End Fuel Poverty Coalition.
Jenny, who lives in a council bungalow, says: ‘It does make me angry when I think how much more I am spending on my energy bills. I hardly watch the television, so I can’t cut down on that and I rarely buy anything from the supermarket that does not have a yellow reduction sticker on it.’
The pensioner is here because she wants to replace her pre-payment meter with a standard one. A friend has told her this will save Jenny money — and she is right. Ofgem’s price cap is higher for pre-payment customers at an average of £2,017 a year — £46 more than for those with standard meters.
Jenny says she is not in debt with her supplier, so she should be able to switch, but the firm is refusing to make the change.
Fortunately Shanara Begum, of Citizens Advice, is happy to take on her case. ‘We’re going to talk to the supplier to find out why it is saying no,’ she says.
She will also check if Jenny is eligible for the Warm House Discount — a one-off annual payment worth £140 that the pensioner used to receive when her husband was still alive.
Those on pension credit automatically qualify, but Jenny’s low income may mean she also meets her supplier’s criteria for receiving it.
Hardest hit: Ofgem’s price cap is higher for pre-payment customers at an average of £2,017 a year – £46 more than for those with standard meters
As well as help with energy costs, Jenny is told she may be entitled to a substantial discount on her water bills if she is able to switch to South Staffs Water’s discounted tariff for low-income customers. Jenny will receive a call from Citizens Advice within five days.
Jenny says: ‘It’s nice to be able to speak to someone in person, rather than failing to get through to a firm on the phone.’
The British Gas Energy Trust also has a £6 million fund to provide grants of up to £750 to customers. Households must have no more than £1,000 in savings and owe between £250 and £750 to the supplier.
Applicants can start the process in the Post Office today —and from July the scheme will be extended so all households, regardless of their supplier, will be able to apply for grants worth up to £1,000.
The pop-up service has been advertised on Facebook to local residents. Yet it’s evident few people know it exists as just three members of the public sat down with Shanara, 37, in the branch on Monday.
Others were in a rush or felt a little uncomfortable talking about their finances in public so, instead, provided their telephone number for a follow-up call with Citizens Advice.
A father of one arrived with his two-year-old daughter in a buggy. The 38-year-old, who works in the hospitality sector, tells me he is putting up to £3 a day into his pre-payment meter and worried about food prices.
Another passer-by, Meta Earlston, 55, says she’ll tell her brother, who is also struggling with bills, about the pop-up.
With so many people clearly desperate, this service could prove invaluable.
British Gas just needs to do a little more to ensure struggling households know it exists.