This question begins with a story from earlier today.

An elderly lady sat in the marketplace when I overheard her telling the security guard that her house didn't have heating or electricity. I offered to buy her a cup of tea, but she asked me for the number of a local electrical company, and said they'd been with her earlier in the week. I called, but they hadn't been to her address. They did ask some diagnostic questions, which she partly answered. I realised she was not completely clearheaded, and I felt very uncomfortable booking someone to visit her as I had no idea if she could afford to pay. But I also realised that with the whole house being off it's probably a basic problem - circuit breaker, or pre-pay meter out of credit. I explained to her that I'm not an electrician but I could probably fix it. She declined the offer. That's fair enough, but I worry that she may spend tonight in a dark, cold house, when me offering in a slightly different way could have avoided that. It's likely that her landlord is responsible for this.

How to offer such help in a way that encourages people to accept it?

I want to help her directly or either ask her to contact her landlord or to give me her landlord's contact details.


3 Answers 3


I'm going to offer an answer that doesn't directly answer the question but provides some useful information that may help.

Disclaimer I work in a call center for one of the largest utility companies in the UK.

I realised she was not completely clearheaded

You should probably flag this to Social Services. She may not be able to cope with her current situation without help and they are best able to do this. For example, they should be able to find any relatives and ask them to step in, or if she has none they can provide a case worker to help her.

See How to arrange care

Most local councils have a number that you can call if you want to to let them know of a vulnerable person.

A random quote from the news:

Many who die in cold weather are elderly and councils have asked people to check on old people and vulnerable neighbours.


Weather-related deaths usually number around 25,000 per year - and last year there were more than 34,000 excess winter deaths recorded in the mild winter.

If she has no electric supply the first point of call should be her electric provider. They will run through troubleshooting steps for her to take.

This call could be done by a friend or neighbour but she must be present to provide consent (because of data protection) during the call.

Possible causes of no electric supply:

  1. Problem downstream of meter

    Circuit breaker trip is indeed a possibility. The call center should talk the caller through how to check.

    Other downstream issues will not be the responsibly of the provider and the customer needs to call an electrician (or in this case the landlord should do this as it a rented property - it will also be his responsibility to pay).

  2. Problem with a prepayment meter

    Again call the provider. See above. They will be able to deal with this and advise how to access emergency credit on the meter and offer additional help if she is unable to pay.

    Most providers off a Friendly Non Disconnect Service for prepayment meters:

    Friendly Non Disconnect Service – your meter won’t cut off overnight between each period of 6pm and 9am Monday to Saturday or all day Sunday if there’s credit on it at the start of the period. These times may vary depending which area of the country you live in"

    UK energy providers are not allowed to cut off electric or gas supply because of inability to pay, but must instead offer advice. One example would be contacting the DWP for a Fuel Direct scheme where the DWP makes the fuel payments directly from someones benefits.

    At least one of the large energy providers in the UK has a hardship fund which may pay all or part of someones debt - but a reference/case number needs to be provided by the UK National Debtline so she needs to speak to them first.

  3. Problem upstream of meter (off supply)

    This is usually also dealt with by your electric supplier provider (they will contact the network operator on your behalf), but you can also call 105:

    105 is the new number to call if you have a power cut. It’s free of charge and will put you through to your local electricity network operator who can give you help and advice.


    105 is a free service, available to people in England, Scotland and Wales.

    You can call the number from most landlines and mobile phones.

    Note, the network operator is usually a different company to your electricity provider. The network operator is responsible for off-supply repairs.

  • Thanks for the answer. Some interesting info, and you sound like an extremely helpful call agent. I presume that (2) only applies to billed customers? Pre-payment meters still cut off when credit reaches zero (I've not had one for some years now). Also, is it really a good idea to call social services? If I saw someone struggling with children, I would only call SS in the most extreme circumstances, for obvious reasons. Perhaps it's a bit different with the elderly?
    – paj28
    Jan 14, 2018 at 14:32
  • @paj28 "Pre-payment meters still cut off when credit reaches zero". Yes, but there is an emergency credit option for card prepayments at least, to be be used for example at the weekend when the prepayment top up outlets are closed. There are still coin operated meters around but they are relatively rare these days. I took a call from a customer a few weeks ago as the meter would only work with the old pound coins ... Jan 14, 2018 at 14:36
  • "is it really a good idea to call social services?" If your sufficiently concerned then yes. Remember that every winter may old people in the UK die of cold. A random quote from the news "Many who die in cold weather are elderly and councils have asked people to check on old people and vulnerable neighbours. " Jan 14, 2018 at 14:39
  • Ok, but from memory that emergency credit is only £5. So in practice the electricity supply is cut off due to an inability to pay. I did not know about coin meters.
    – paj28
    Jan 14, 2018 at 14:39
  • "Weather-related deaths usually number around 25,000 per year - and last year there were more than 34,000 excess winter deaths recorded in the mild winter." Jan 14, 2018 at 14:40

@DavidPostill gives some great insight into the utilities side of things and what to do if you think she's actually at risk of physical harm. As you mentioned though, you're hesitant to call SS without a clearer reason, so I'm going to run with the assumption you won't do that.

In all honesty you've already gone above and beyond to help a stranger. I doubt, based on the details provided, that you phrasing the question a little differently would have changed her response. Let's briefly break it down by level of involvement.

  1. You overheard a stranger's conversation and decided to interject. Already that's pretty forward, but your motives are good so it's not like you really went wrong there. Some people might be offended by that, but it sounds like this lady was already willing to discuss the situation with strangers.
  2. You offered to check with the utility company for her. This goes from a casual interaction straight to something much more personal. You're not offering to help fix a flat tire, you're getting into someone's personal life and (as you noted) could even impact their finances inadvertently. This is even more forward, considering you've only known this person for a few minutes. This seems to make you uncomfortable, and it should. Getting into finances of a friend is already murky water, let alone a stranger.
  3. You're now wondering if you should have taken it even further by physically involving yourself in the fix. In most situations this opens you up to being responsible if something goes wrong (you break something, are injured, she's injured, etc). This is almost always a bad idea, if just for the potential legal complications.

It's great that you're concerned and want to help, but you also need to be aware of how much you're entangling yourself in a stranger's life by trying to fix their problem. Interpersonal relations typically follow a progression as two people get to know each other. It starts with non-personal talk (weather, sports, etc), then moves to personal details (likes and dislikes, work, etc), and only after that would it involve any mutual arrangements out in public (lunch, coffee, etc). The next level above that is sharing of personal space (i.e., inviting someone into your home). It's yet another level above that to trust someone with decision-making, like fixing their electrical problem. You tried to jump from complete stranger all the way up to the trusted decision-maker in only a matter of minutes. Even if you were an expert electrician, that would still be a very pushy/pretentious thing to do.

I know that sounds like pretty strong wording, but I'm just pointing it out to set up for this...

The bottom line:

You've done everything reasonable to help and have been refused. Unless there's clear and present danger to warrant forcing the situation, it's not your place to do so. You've done all you can, and you shouldn't hold yourself responsible for her situation.

  • Just to be clear, she asked for (2). Do you still consider that forward?
    – paj28
    Jan 15, 2018 at 16:32
  • My mistake, I read that as she just asked for the number, not for you to call for her. If she specifically solicited your help, that's perfectly fine. I'd still draw the line there, though, and end with the same bottom line answer. You were generous enough to offer, but it's no surprise she didn't accept further assistance, and you shouldn't worry about it (unless, as mentioned, there's a clear risk to her safety). You did your due diligence.
    – thanby
    Jan 15, 2018 at 16:45
  • No worries. Thanks for taking the time to answer. I'm ok with the legal risks by the way. I know they're non-zero, but I wasn't going to do any wiring, and I can live with that level of risk. I actually think it's sad these days that people see such risks as a reason for inaction. But I agree with your conclusion - with a denial, there's not much more I can do.
    – paj28
    Jan 15, 2018 at 18:53
  • It is kind-of sad we have to worry about stuff like that in this day and age. But there are risks beyond just electrocution/fire/whatever. From my experience, someone whose utilities got shut off usually have a lot of other more serious problems, not just a simple "Oops forgot to pay the bill" or a tripped breaker or similar. That's where it gets really sticky, when you discover unsanitary conditions, neglect, etc. It's just impossible to take anything at face value these days.
    – thanby
    Jan 15, 2018 at 19:18

I would say to try and have a conversation with her and ask her some more specific questions to see if you can get answers from her. Maybe try and contact some relatives that might be able to help.

you mentioned a few things that might be an issue. I found this that could be of help if you feel it's the circuit breaker in the house causing the issue.

Circuit Breaker Troubleshooting for Beginners

  • Hello, welcome to Interpersonal Skills! In general, this site is for questions and answers about Interpersonal Skills. So, how to fix a circuit breaker is an off-topic answer here ;-). In general, when including a link into your answer, please also make sure to copy the relevant information from that link into your answer. Use links more like you would footnotes, instead of sending users away from this site.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Apr 18, 2018 at 12:42
  • So, if you could elaborate a bit on the first part of your answer (which is about Interpersonal Skills) and motivate (preferably with experience or sources) why that should solve the question, that would be great!
    – Tinkeringbell
    Apr 18, 2018 at 12:43

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