Most people aged over 60 can apply now to get help towards their winter energy costs.

Under the Government's winter fuel payments scheme, you can make a claim if you were born on or before 5 January 1951 and were living in the UK on any day between 19 and 25 September this year.

If you receive certain benefits, regardless of age, you can also get extra cash via the Government's cold weather payments scheme each time there is a seven-day period of very cold weather between 1 November and 31 March.

With energy prices soaring, after all the big six gas and electricity firms raised prices over the past few weeks, many households can do with all the help they can get.

How much can I get?

  • Winter fuel payments. If eligible, you'll get a lump sum of up to £200 tax-free, while those 80 or over on 25 September this year get up to £300. This is down from £250 and £400, respectively, from last year. Payments can take a few months to arrive so the earlier you apply the better.

  • Cold weather payments. If eligible, you will get £25 for each seven-day period between 1 November and 31 March when the average temperature where you live is recorded as, or forecast to be, zero degrees celsius or below.
How do I claim winter fuel payments?

If you received a winter fuel payment in a previous year or you receive the state pension and/or certain other benefits (this link lists eligible benefits), you do not need to do anything if your circumstances are the same. Payments will be made automatically in November or December.

Anyone else should download a claim form from the website and return it to the Pensions Service, or ring 0845 915 1515 for the paperwork.

If you've received winter fuel payments before, but your circumstances have changed, eg, you've deferred your state pension or stopped receiving certain benefits, you'll need to report it via the website, or by phoning 0845 915 1515.

Claims must be made by 30 March 2012 for winter 2011/12 payments, although claims made after 23 September this year will be paid in 2012.

How do I claim cold weather payments?

You don't need to apply for cold weather payments as if you're in receipt of certain benefits such as Pension Credit, you'll be paid it within 14 days of each cold period in your area.

See this link for eligible benefits.

Can I get backdated winter fuel payments?

While you can't claim backdated payments from 2001 onwards, you can claim for winters between 1997/98 and 1999/2000 if you were eligible then.

Are there any exclusions to getting winter fuel?

You can't get a winter fuel payment if, during the week of 19-25 September 2011:

  • You were in hospital for more than 52 weeks previously, getting free treatment.
  • You were in prison.
  • You were subject to immigration control and were not eligible for government help.
  • You were living in a care home or an independent hospital for the previous 12 weeks or more, AND you got an income-related benefit such as Pension Credit.

Campaign to donate winter fuel payments

A new campaign, which is backed by charities including the Community Foundation Network and Saga, was launched last week to enable wealthier pensioners to donate their winter fuel payments to those who are struggling to keep warm.

Money raised by the scheme will support local charities and community organisations.

People below pension age can also donate to the appeal via the Saga website, or by contacting their local Community Foundation.

Additional reporting by the Press Association.