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Coronavirus: Energy firms permitted to chase unpaid bills again

Person using electric cooker Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Companies put collection on unpaid bills on hold

Energy companies have been given the go-ahead to chase unpaid energy bills again - although they have been warned not to be aggressive in their pursuit.

Regulator Ofgem has told suppliers it is not in anyone's interests for an open-ended debt collection delay.

Many households are benefitting from coronavirus-related payment holidays.

But bailiffs have been banned from knocking on doors for another two months to collect other unpaid debts, such as parking fines or council tax.

The government has said that the current restrictions on civil enforcement officers would continue until 24 August.

Households struggling with their finances during the coronavirus outbreak have been able to negotiate help on their regular bills, such as mortgages, credit card repayments, and energy bills.

Alongside this, energy companies paused their pursuit of any outstanding unpaid bills, but now the British energy regulator has said this could begin again assuming collection by companies or their agents is "fair".

"We recognise that suppliers cannot extend unlimited credit to customers - nor is this in customers' interests overall - and we anticipate suppliers will begin to restart debt management activities that may have been paused during the immediate crisis," Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley said in a letter to suppliers.

He added that suppliers must take into account customers' ability to pay.

"We will not tolerate sharp practice or aggressive debt collection and suppliers could face enforcement action where this is the case," he said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Parking restrictions were eased while all but key workers stayed at home

Wider debt collection still faces various restrictions, primarily through curbs on bailiffs.

Councils, some of which suspended parking enforcement during lockdown, have returned to enforcing parking restrictions across much of the UK. Northern Ireland has traffic wardens back on the streets and fines will be issued again from 29 June.

Meanwhile, a significant proportion of people making payments for unpaid taxes have continued to do so during lockdown.

However, bailiffs - who are usually permitted to seize property or clamp vehicles to collect unpaid debts to local authorities - will see visits to people's homes restricted for another two months.

The Civil Enforcement Association, which represents bailiffs, said it would comply with government regulations and ensure public health was not put at risk.

However, it said a code of conduct for agents which had been drawn up in the expectation of an earlier return to work would probably need updating assuming further easing of restrictions such as social distancing.

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