Simon Read: "In a corner of British Gas - help for the hard-up"

 

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The Independent Online

It's Debt Awareness Week, so I've been talking to someone on the front line. He manages a team who spend their days talking and helping those with debt difficulties.

From his office in Manchester, Brian Jackson looks after 450 staff who are dedicated to helping the hard-up. "We try very hard to do as much as we can to help people with debt problems," he told me.

The surprising thing about Mr Jackson is where he works. It's Britain's biggest energy supplier, British Gas – a company I've long criticised for making excessive profits while customers suffer with ever-increasing energy bills.

But I'm happy, for a change, to highlight a part of the giant company that actually seems to work for the benefit of the less well-off. Mr Jackson is head of debt operations for the energy giant but says his role is to find ways to help struggling people.

That's not just about ensuring they can pay their bills, but also that they can get back on their feet, he explains. "We focus on what we can do to help people avoid getting into that situation ever again."

So while his staff hand out energy- efficiency advice that can help cut the cost of heating and lighting a home, they can also put vulnerable people in touch with grants or discounts, either through British Gas or with outside agencies.

For instance, the team often refer people to the British Gas Energy Trust, which makes grants to people in energy debt.In fact it has handed out £75m in the past 10 years, helping 120,000 people in the process with grants and debt advice.

The money can be used to clear arrears or buy essential white goods, such as fridges or new boilers. Even better, the grants are available to all – not just British Gas customers.

However, the company also teamed up with the debt charity StepChange 18 months ago to offer customers another avenue of help. "When talking with customers, we often discover that many have much broader financial issues, such as struggling with mortgage or credit card debt," says Mr Jackson. "We try and understand what's the underlying problem or difficulty and pass on to StepChange those people who can benefit from help from the charity."

One thing it often does is talk to creditors and negotiate affordable repayment terms – a process that many people struggle to cope with. Being freed of that burden can help in the process of rebuilding their finances.

Mr Jackson's advice to people with money concerns? "If you are worried about paying your bill, call us. My team are there to help sort the situation out, and the earlier we get to hear of a customer's issue, the more chance we have to help them out."

You can call his team on 0800 072 8625 and find out more about grants and help at the website britishgasenergytrust.org.uk.

s.read@independent.co.uk

twitter: @simonnread

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