Most people aged 60 or over can get help towards their energy costs, which can be a vital lifeline for many as winter draws nearer and heating costs rise.

Consumers may be able to get up to £300 to help pay their energy bills, under the Government's winter fuel payment scheme, if they were born on or before 5 July 1951 and meet certain criteria, as explained below.

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

But while all cold weather payments will be made automatically, some will need to apply for winter fuel payments. This will include those who don't get any social security benefits — such as state pension or pension credit — from the Department of Work and Pensions.

And with energy prices on the rise, any extra cash will help. Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) and British Gas have already raised prices this winter, while Npower customers were hit with average increases of 8.8% for gas and 9.1% for electricity yesterday.

Eon is the only big six provider not to have announced price hikes yet. It has guaranteed a price freeze until the end of the year, although that gives it licence to raise them on 1 January.

But here's what you need to know about the winter fuel and cold weather payment schemes:

How much can I get?

  • Winter fuel payments: If you normally live in the UK and did so for at least one day throughout the week of 17 to 23 September this year, and you were born on or before 5 July 1951, you'll get up to £200. If you meet the same criteria and were aged 80 or over in that same week, you'll get up to £300. See for exactly how much you could get.

  • Cold weather payments: You get £25 for each seven day period of "very cold" weather between 1 November and 31 March. "Very cold" weather is when your local temperature is either recorded as, or forecast to be, an average of zero degrees Celsius or below over seven consecutive days.

How do I get winter fuel payments?

If you received a winter fuel payment in a previous year or you receive the state pension and/or another social security benefit excluding housing benefit, council tax benefit or child benefit, you do not need to do anything, if your circumstances are the same.

Payments will be made automatically in November or December.

If you've received winter fuel payments before, but your circumstances have changed, eg, you've stopped receiving certain benefits, you'll need to report it via the office that pays your benefit, as it could affect how much you get.

If you qualify and haven't been paid automatically, or if you qualify and don't get any social security benefits, other than housing benefit, council tax benefit or child benefit, you'll need to make a claim.

You can do this by filling out a claims form on the website and posting it to the winter fuel payment team. There's a different form for claiming if you're in the UK or abroad.

Claims must be made by 31 March 2013 for winter 2012/13.

How do I get cold weather payments?

You may be able to get cold weather payments if you receive pension credit, or certain income-based benefits.

However, you don't need to apply. If you're eligible, you'll be paid automatically within 14 working days into the same bank or building society account used for your benefit payments.

If you haven't been paid, but think you should have been, contact your pension centre or Jobcentre Plus office.

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.

To do this you'll need to fill in a different form, which can be found on the website.

Are there any cases where I won't qualify for winter fuel payments?

You won't qualify if throughout the week of 17 to 23 September 2012 you:

  • Were in prison.
  • You were in hospital for more than 52 weeks previously, getting free treatment.
  • Were subject to immigration control and were not eligible for government help.
  • Lived in a care home for the previous 12 weeks or more and got pension credit, income-based jobseeker's allowance or income-related employment and support allowance.