Millions are struggling to cope in the cost of living crisis, while energy companies rake in the profits. Image: Flickr/ Fuel Poverty Action
A child asked his disabled mother if she was going to die from the cold because she couldn’t afford heating. Meanwhile her supplier British Gas raked in billions of pounds in profits.
Anne-Marie Large, a 36-year-old mother of two boys, claims she was forced onto a prepayment meter by British Gas after she found herself unable to pay her debt to the company.
“They are like fat cats,” Large says. “The big energy companies are standing on the shoulders of everyone who is struggling while we crumble beneath them. People are suffering. It makes me angry.”
Centrica, the owner of British Gas, revealed its annual profits had tripled to a record £3.3 billion in 2022. It claimed it has provided “stability and support” in the cost of living crisis.
Large disagrees. She has severe ME and fibromyalgia which leave her unable to work and reliant on benefits. Her direct debit to British Gas failed a couple of years ago while she was struggling with her mental health and unable to keep on top of her payments.
She claims she was not alerted to the missing payments until she was over £2,000 in debt. She was put on a payment plan she could not afford and, when she could not pay, her smart meter was switched remotely to a prepayment meter.
She claims she had no choice and was given an ultimatum – give permission for the meter switch or face being taken to court where British Gas would forcibly install it under warrant, which would cost her. After she agreed to move to a prepayment plan, the family was often left without power because she could not afford to top up.
Citizens Advice recently revealed 3.2 million people across the UK ran out of credit on their prepayment meter last year because they didn’t have enough money. That’s one person every 10 seconds.
Large has been hospitalised twice for pneumonia, which she was told by doctors was exacerbated by her cold and damp home. She is on British Gas’s priority register and claims the company knows she is vulnerable and needs constant supply of electricity.
“My eight-year-old knows how much I struggle with the cold and my health and he said to me: ‘Mummy, are you going to die?’ It is horrible hearing that from your own kid,” she says.
Following reports of energy suppliers taking customers to court to force them onto prepayment meters, which was first exposed by The Big Issue, Ofgem has banned the practice temporarily. This includes switching people onto prepayment meters via their smart meters. People, like Large, can still give British Gas permission to put them onto a prepayment meter if they believe they have no other choice.
“There are so many of us struggling while they line their pockets,” Large says. “There are so many of us who can’t afford to eat or heat our homes.”
A spokesperson for British Gas says: “We’re sorry to hear about Mrs Large’s situation. We’ll be in touch with her to look at how we can resolve this. We’ll also discuss any further help and support that’s available.”
The temporary ban on installing prepayment meters under warrant is set to end on March 31, just as energy bills are hiked in April when the price cap rises from £2,500 to £3,000.
Another British Gas customer, Christopher, is thousands of pounds in debt to the company and struggling to afford to eat. He has also been put on a payment plan he cannot afford, of £182 a month, and he was threatened with a prepayment meter before the company suspended the practice.
“This payment plan has left me without the ability to feed myself last month,” he says. “I’ve struggled terribly this month, having to eat out-of-date pancakes and cutting the mould so I can take my diabetes medication. I doubt I can pay this month’s direct debit.”
Christopher says he has been left “financially devastated” and had to turn to a food bank for help for the first time in his life. “It’s good that I no longer have to eat out of date food to take my medication,” he says. “I don’t have any out of date food to eat. So I’ve stopped taking my medication. British gas profited from this misery. £3.3bn for them. Debt and starvation for me.”
He claims he, like Large, was not told his direct debits were failing for three years. He was offered £20 in compensation from British Gas and recently received a letter from the company saying: “We do believe we’ve already given you a fair response and I’m disappointed to learn that you don’t agree.” It advised him to complain to the Ombudsman if he still had unresolved complaints.
“We’re sorry to hear about Christopher’s difficult situation,” a spokesperson for the energy company says. “We’ve been in regular contact with him and have discussed the help available. To ensure we’re doing all we can for him, we’ll be getting in touch to see what further support we may be able to offer.”
British Gas customer Steve, a single self-employed father of an eight-year-old, says he has been hit with a gas bill of £456 a month. He says he only tends to put the heating on to keep his daughter warm in the evenings.
“I have a daughter who needs warm, safe shelter,” he says. “I’m scared to put the heating on because at this rate it means I won’t be able to pay my rent and we’ll end up homeless.”
He says he is unsure how he is going to pay his bill this month. “How are people worse off meant to survive?” he says. “The working classes, the average joes, the struggling families are all being neglected in the name of profit.
“People less fortunate than I will die as a result of this, whether that be from stress or through freezing to death for fear of turning on their boilers. To post record profits during this time is shameless and repulsive. There’s blood on the energy companies’ profits: every penny.”
The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.
Do you have lived experience or burning opinions to share about this story? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.