VICTORIA BISCHOFF: Use that helping hand

VICTORIA BISCHOFF: If you are struggling with essential bills, use that helping hand

At last! Help is on its way for millions of households who are struggling to cope with soaring energy bills.

Even consumer experts were pleasantly surprised by the generosity of the Chancellor’s £21billion cost-of-living rescue plan revealed last week.

But perhaps the biggest cause for celebration is that pensioners are finally back on Rishi’s radar.

There are steps pensioners can take to ensure they do not miss out on other vital supports

Retirees on fixed incomes — so often worst-hit by rising prices — would be forgiven for feeling completely abandoned in recent months. They received not a single mention in the October and March Budgets. And after the triple lock was axed last year, state pensions rose by just 3.1 per cent in April.

With inflation edging ever closer to 10 per cent, many pensioners have been left unable to make ends meet.

No wonder charities say they are inundated with harrowing tales of older people skipping meals, turning off the heating or cancelling outings with loved ones because they cannot afford a cup of tea in a cafe. 

It is therefore a great relief that Mr Sunak has now pledged to reinstate the triple lock to give state pensions a desperately needed boost next year.

Retirees must wait until the September inflation figure is published to find out how much more they will get. But if it is as high as expected, it could mean close to £1,000 of extra money in their pockets a year. We must now hold the Chancellor to his word.

In the meantime, there are steps pensioners can take to ensure they do not miss out on other vital supports. Most notably, those in receipt of pension credit have been promised two payments worth a total of £650. Pension credit is available to those with few savings and a weekly income of less than £182.60 (£278.70 if you have a partner).

It also acts as a gateway for help with council tax, NHS prescriptions and a free TV licence.

Yet for far too long this vital benefit has been woefully under-claimed. Nearly one million households are still missing out, according to Age UK.

The Department for Work and Pensions is painfully aware of the problem — so much so that it launched a campaign in April to help spread the word. But more needs to be done to get this money into the hands of people who so desperately need it. And we can all do our bit by reminding family, friends and neighbours.

Local councils also have access to a huge pot of cash to provide further financial aid — and at least one third of this Household Support Fund is reserved for pensioners.

It is down to local councils to distribute the money. But as we reveal here, eligibility rules vary widely and it is not always clear how to apply. So if you are struggling with essential bills, it is imperative you call or email your council to ask if you qualify.

And don’t forget that energy giants have also set aside funds to help bill-payers. British Gas Energy Trust, for example, has ear-marked £6million to provide grants to vulnerable customers.

This is scheduled to be extended to all households, regardless of their supplier, in the summer.

Of course, even combined these support payments will not mitigate against all rising costs, and some households will fall through the cracks. It is also likely the Chancellor will be forced to open his wallet again before this cost-of-living crisis is over. But for now, there is help out there, you just need to chase it down.

And as always, we will keep you informed of all that’s up for grabs in Money Mail each week.

Prize tales

In cheerier news, happy 65th birthday to millionaire-maker Ernie! As sad as it may sound, NS&I’s premium bond prize draws are a highlight of my month.

I’ve never won more than £25, but that doesn’t stop me daydreaming about what I’d do if I scooped the jackpot. (Currently, it’s a country music-inspired road trip across the southern states of America and two weeks in a pasta coma in Italy, in case you’re interested.)

So have any lucky Money Mail readers ever pocketed a big prize? I would love to hear from you — and I swear never to spill your secret…