CHRISTMAS will be tight for many this year, but millions of pounds in support is available from the Government and charities – if you know where to look.
Some of it is handed out automatically but other funding is only given to those who apply.
Harriet Cooke explains how to track down help when you need it.
CASH FROM COUNCILS
VOUCHERS and cash worth up to £600 are available for families in need from the Government’s Household Support Fund in England.
The aid is handed out by local authorities, which each have their own criteria for who qualifies.
Many councils also run other “discretionary welfare” schemes to help those not covered by the HSF.
Search on gov.uk/find-local-council to find contact details for your local authority and check its website or phone to see what is on offer.
There’s also the Discretionary Assistance Fund, which provides emergency payments to people facing hardship.
Find out what support is available at gov.wales/help-cost-living.
NEW website warmspaces.org has a UK-wide map of warm spaces, typically run by councils and charities, where people can escape if they can’t switch on their heating at home.
It includes initiatives such as Heart of the Park in Hampshire, which provides hot meals and drinks at Leigh Park Community Centre in Havant, or the Clanfield Centre in Clanfield, as well as activities, games, clubs and free wifi access.
Your local council can also direct you to a warm space.
Some towns, such as Buckley in Flintshire, and Shrewsbury, Shrops, have Community Fridges where anyone can donate or accept good food that would otherwise go to waste.
Find your nearest one at hubbub.org.uk/the-community-fridge.
The FoodCycle charity offers free, three-course meals made from surplus food to anyone in the community, in a scheme aimed at getting people together.
Another option is to become a member of Your Local Pantry if there is one in your neighbourhood.
These are subsidised stores where members pay £3.50 to £7 to stock up on fresh fruit and veg and store cupboard staples to the value of £15 to £20.
CHECK you are not missing any benefits you are entitled to claim using the tool on turn2Us.org.uk.
You can also use its grants search to find out if there is any help on offer from charities in your area.
Citizens Advice will also direct you to local support as well as giving advice on money problems.
ENERGY BILL SUPPORT
Energy suppliers such as EDF, E.on Next, Shell and Scottish Power also offer grants for people in financial difficulty which you will need to apply for.
The British Gas Energy Trust, for example, offers up to £1,500 to families who are trying to clear an energy debt and are facing fuel poverty.
You don’t need to be a British Gas customer to apply for this fund.
PRE-PAY METER TOP-UPS
IF you cannot afford to top up your prepayment meter, you might be able to get a voucher from the Fuel Bank Foundation to add a credit to your gas card or electricity key.
The vouchers are £49 in winter months and £30 in summer.
You will need a referral from your local council or a charity like a food bank.
The voucher is a code sent to you by letter, text or email which you can redeem at the Post Office or a shop signed up to PayPoint or Payzone.
Check your fuel voucher to see when it expires.
You might have to use it within 15 days.
PHONE AND INTERNET
VIRGIN Media O2 has introduced the National Databank to help people get free mobile data if they can’t afford it.
Eligible customers who visit any of the ten participating O2 stores can get 20GB of free data per month for up to six months — enough for around 220 hours of internet browsing per month.
To get it, you’ll need to be from a low-income household and have no or insufficient access to the internet, but no proof is needed.
Stores taking part in the pilot include Hastings, Hull (Jameson Street), Norwich, Plymouth, Broadstairs (Thanet Westwood Cross) and Stockton-on-Tees (Teesside Retail Park).
If you’re looking for work, you can apply through your work coach for a voucher to exchange for six months free broadband from TalkTalk.
BT, Virgin, Sky and other major providers also offer cheaper broadband tariffs from £15 a month for people on benefits such as Universal Credit.
SOME organisations, including Lidl and the Salvation Army, collect toys for hard-up families, but you normally need to be referred by a charity or social services to benefit.
If you can’t afford toys, look for second-hand ones on the YoungPlanet, Olio and Preloved apps, Facebook Marketplace or Nextdoor.
Many parents are clearing out at this time of year to make way for new Christmas toys.
See if you have a local toy library, which loans out toys, puzzles and games for as little as £3 for an annual pass.
DON’T TOY WITH DANGER
SHOPPERS are being urged to keep an eye out for fake products when buying Christmas presents.
The warning comes from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute who say more people may be at risk due to cutting back as the cost-of-living crisis bites.
It estimates that half of shoppers are still unclear on what to look out for when buying goods to ensure they are safe.
The CTSI says dangerous toys, unsafe electronic goods and counterfeit cosmetics could turn a “Merry Christmas into a time of tragedy”.
John Herriman, chief executive of CTSI, said: “Times are tough right now and the need to save money or spend less is completely understandable.
While our polling suggests that many of us will cut back our spending this Christmas, we want to remind people that while fake or counterfeit goods might be tempting, they are often a false economy.”
“If a shoddy electrical device or set of fairy lights catches fire while you and your family are asleep upstairs, a happy time of year could very quickly become something you’ll remember for all the wrong reasons.”
The CTSI is urging shoppers to only buy from reputable retailers.
It’s also calling on customers to look out for the UKCA mark on products such as toys, electrical goods and cosmetics which means they’ve been tested and comply with safety standards.
HELP FOR WATER BILLS
MILLIONS of struggling families should check if they could get discounts of up to 90 per cent off their water bills.
Customers on low incomes and those who receive certain benefits might be able to qualify for a social tariff with their supplier.
The criteria and tariffs vary depending on where you live and who supplies your water but the reductions can be huge.
Currently, Severn Trent Water is offering the biggest discounts for hard-up customers in its catchment area of the Midlands and Wales.
Its Big Difference scheme offers 90 per cent off standard rates for households with an income of no more than £18,278.
You need to supply payslips from the last three months and proof of any benefits you receive. Successful applicants will get a new payment plan which lasts for 12 months.
Cambridge Water offers up to 60 per cent off its tariffs for certain low-income households, while Anglian Water and Northumbrian Water offer up to 50 per cent off.
Bournemouth offers between 15 per cent and 85 per cent discounts depending on your circumstances, while Southern Water offers at least 45 per cent off if you qualify for its social tariff.
Contact your supplier to find out whether you’re eligible.
If you’re not sure who your supplier is you can check on water.org.uk by entering your postcode.
Some suppliers also offer free water-saving gadgets to help you cut bills.