Don’t Pay UK protest on their national day of action on October 1. Image: Eliza Pitkin/ The Big Issue
People are cancelling their direct debits to energy companies and refusing to pay bills they cannot afford, despite experts warning it could have “severe consequences”.
Inspired by Don’t Pay UK, which is now planning an energy bills strike on December 1, these are people who are angry with the government and the huge profits generated by energy companies. They are also people who simply cannot afford to pay their bills.
Sian, a single mum to two young children, told the Big Issue: “I want control of what I pay as they are ripping people off. I have requested a bill at the end of every quarter and I will pay what I can and if I fall into debt, so be it. I have stopped caring. People need to stand up now.”
Don’t Pay UK is organising a belated strike in December, with or without a million pledges. The original plan was an energy bills strike on October 1. This would only go ahead if a “critical mass” of people had agreed to cancel their bills, defined as one million people at the time.
The group has now shifted its approach. The strike will take place on December 1 if they have a “critical mass of people” signed up, but campaigners have declined to give an exact number. Many people have been cancelling their bills anyway, and not all are aware of the change in tactics.
“I joined the campaign because I feel ordinary people are being made to pay while the energy producers make obscene profits,” Zoe, who has already cancelled her direct debit, said.
“It’s just not fair. I want the government to do the right thing and put a windfall tax on those companies – like Shell and British Gas – so we don’t have to struggle this winter. I have no faith that this government will do the right thing, so the only option is to strike on December 1.”
Robert, who joined the campaign earlier in the year, said he will pay his bills but only for the amount of energy he has used at an affordable rate for him. So far, he hasn’t had any repercussions. A trained engineer, he said he is planning on “pulling all the fuses on the house so I’m off-grid” and getting a generator.
The day before the proposed strike date, he told the Big Issue he was unaware it was not going ahead. He said he had received nothing from Don’t Pay UK saying collective action had been cancelled.
A spokesperson for Don’t Pay UK said: “While our overall aim is to gather one million pledges, we currently have around 230,000 people ready to strike. However, thousands of people are signing up to join the strike every day so that number is rising rapidly.”
The Guardian revealed that 2.3 million households were behind on their electricity bills at the end of June, and 1.8 million were behind on their gas bills.
“Our aim is to join them as people who won’t pay to pile pressure on energy companies to lobby the government (once again) for a proper support package,” the Don’t Pay spokesperson added.
A Don’t Pay supporter, Vicky, told the Big Issue she can’t afford the bills coming through her letter box and was only prepared to pay what she is able to. “I could barely afford what I was paying before. I will do my best to pay as much as I can, but the rates are absolutely crazy.”
Howard, another Don’t Pay backer, agreed and said he cancelled his direct debit “a while ago”.
“I was angry with the company’s greed,” he told the Big Issue. “They could afford to take a hit by reducing their profits. I was angry at the government for failing to impose a windfall tax. I’m still angry.”
Howard had a letter on Thursday morning “demanding” he pay his outstanding debt. He added: “I’m fortunate enough to have a bit of spare cash splashing around so if I get hit with a court summons or something in the future I can afford to pay if I choose to.”
He said he “hadn’t actually heard that there was a strike happening” on December 1, “perhaps indicating that resistance is fractured or uncoordinated at least”.
As for the “critical mass”, Howard said: “I’m guessing that a critical mass in this context refers to enough people to bring about some sort of change. I don’t know how many that would be.”
Don’t Pay UK organisers have taken a decentralised, grassroots approach which they hope will urge huge numbers of people to take collective action. The idea is that local people take action and build momentum in their own communities.
But this approach is hitting some bumps in the road, with people unaware of the group’s sudden change of plan. Some supporters told the Big Issue they had received no communication from organisers of Don’t Pay UK.
This included Robert, who had already cancelled his direct debit. “Times are hard at the moment,” he said last month. “I have money coming out of my account, and I don’t think [the energy company] has the right to tell me what I’m paying when I haven’t used it.”
Lawyer and personal finance writer Gary Rycroft told the Big Issue in August that refusing to pay energy bills could have “disastrous consequences” for individuals, impacting their credit score and potentially landing them in court.
The figure of one million was arbitrary, Rycroft said, adding: “It is misunderstanding and then misconstruing the law to say, once you’ve reached a certain threshold, then it’s somehow allowed.”
But he added that cancelling direct debits won’t necessarily land a customer in legal problems. “If a customer pays for what they use and make sure regular payments continue by standing order it should not impact on their credit score,” he said.
Rycroft recommended that people struggling with bills ask their energy company for help, who should agree a payment plan as required by Ofgem regulations – although the cost of the energy used is still adding up and will have to be repaid at some point.
He warned if a person only pays for the amount of energy they can afford, rather than what the energy company is asking for, that will build up a debt. So, to avoid a negative impact on their credit score, customers should agree to a lower payment plan with their energy provider.
Zoe has tried to take these steps. “I simply can’t afford to pay more,” she said. “I have already cut my food bill – going without certain things and buying cheaper options – but there’s no more left to cut.”
Her energy supplier, So Energy, has so far been supportive in finding a solution. “At the moment, all is fine with them,” she said. “I expect when I stop paying things might change though. I am worried. I have a mortgage and all the usual bills families have. But I feel so strongly that I’m willing to take the risk. I believe in strength in numbers and hope that the government will intervene before any negative consequences for me or anyone else.”
According to debt charity StepChange, there can be “severe consequences” to missing or being late on a payment. “If you don’t pay gas or electricity bills, your supplier can collect the debt you owe using a debt collection agency. They can also get a court warrant to enter your home to fit a prepayment card meter,” the charity’s director of external affairs, Richard Lane, said.
“Any arrears will be added to the meter and a set amount will be deducted each week. This means you must pay the arrears at a set weekly amount or lose the supply. Your supplier can also remove the meter and cut off your supply, but fortunately this is incredibly rare.”