Housing

Millions of Brits will be cut off from energy this winter because they can't afford bills

Almost three million people live in households where they have skipped meals, cut back on food spending or sold or pawned possessions to keep their meter topped up

energy bills

Energy bills will be more expensive for some people, including those who use a prepayment meter. Image: Unsplash

More than two million people will be cut off from their gas and electricity this winter because they can’t afford to top up, damning new research into energy bills has found.

Many of us take a hot meal and a warm shower for granted. But some 2.02 million Brits will be disconnected from heating and hot water at some point this winter, Citizens Advice predicts – a fifth of all households on prepayment meters.

The damning statistic comes just days after Ofgem gave energy companies the green light to resume force-fitting the metres.

These are generally more expensive than fixed energy tariffs and have been criticised by charities for trapping low-income households in poverty. They require people to pay for energy before using it, usually with a card or token that can be topped up at a shop or via an app.

Last winter, 1.7 million people disconnected at least once a month, the charity has revealed. Despite the bitter cold, around 800,000 people went more than 24 hours without gas and electricity.

The situation is set to worsen this year, with Citizens Advice predicting a “record” number of disconnects.

As the cold weather bites, switching off the heating can have serious health consequences. East London resident Muhammad – who is immunocompromised and suffers from arthritis – knows this all too well.

The 59 year-old has been struggling to top up his prepayment meter since losing his job in October 2023.

“I would rather be in debt than make myself ill by being cold. I’ve resorted to using my credit cards to top up my prepayment meter and I’m in almost £1,500 of credit card debt because of this,” he said.

“Not being able to afford to top up my prepayment meter and getting into debt because of it – I have sometimes felt like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I even stopped eating and taking my medication for a while because I felt so down, and ended up in hospital.”

Unfortunately, Muhammad’s story is not uncommon. Around five million people live in households that are in debt to their energy supplier, putting them at risk of debt collection, including being forced on to a meter they can’t afford to keep topped up. 

“Households underheating their homes can be dangerous both physically and mentally, and even fatal,” said Peter Smith, National Energy Action’s director of policy.

“Prepayment meter customers, in particular, are at risk of not being able to top up. They have had to pay dearly from day one of the energy crisis and are still facing energy bills almost double what they were at the start of it, two years ago.”

Even those who have not been forced to disconnect are feeling the pinch, the Citizens Advice report warns.

Almost three million people live in households where they have skipped meals, cut back on food spending or sold or pawned possessions in the last year to save money to keep their meter topped up.

Households with children under four are particularly vulnerable; they are twice as likely to be in debt and be forced to disconnect from their gas and electricity than those without children.

In face of this crisis, Citizens Advice have urged the government to provide more support to the most vulnerable houses, and to initiate a long-term plan to tackle spiralling debt from energy bills.

Their recommendations include an expansion of the Warm Homes discount, and more protections against the force-fitting of metres.

“Our frontline advisers are helping more people than ever who can’t pay their energy bill,” Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty Record said.

“The government has not provided new energy bill support for those in need and has run out of time to develop the long-term approach it promised by April 2024. Without immediate action, we risk re-running this same crisis every winter.”

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