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Social Justice

What are the risks of Don’t Pay UK? We asked a leading lawyer

Some are warning that there are risks to mass non-payment, with one lawyer saying it could be “disastrous”

Don’t Pay UK, a campaign calling for a million people to cancel their electricity bills amid the spiralling cost of living crisis and record profits for energy companies, is gaining momentum quickly. Organisers claim 75,000 people are ready to refuse to pay up in October, but a lawyer has issued a warning that mass non-payment of bills could lead to a “disastrous” situation for people. 

Gary Rycroft, a solicitor and personal finance writer, says refusing to pay bills could have “dire consequences for the individuals concerned”, particularly those on low incomes.

“It could be very lonely and very disastrous for individuals who find themselves in a situation where they’ve got a debt against their names,” Rycroft told The Big Issue, adding it would “make it potentially difficult to buy a house or rent a house or get another energy contract.”

Energy regulator Ofgem raised the energy price cap by 54 per cent in April, causing outcry as tens of millions saw the energy costs shoot up. Bills are expected to rise again in October, meaning household energy bills could soar above £3,600 this winter, according to research from consultancy Cornwall Insight.

Don’t Pay UK organisers are hoping a decentralised, grassroots approach will urge huge numbers of people to take collective action. The campaign was only launched six weeks ago but they claim they have received requests from local organisers for 1.6 million flyers to be distributed across the country.

So could mass disobedience have the desired effect? Don’t Pay UK highlight the historical precedent of the poll tax under Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1990, when more than 17 million people refused to pay and it it became impossible to implement.

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But Rycroft argues that there’s a clear difference here.

“We’ve got to differentiate between what you might call civil disobedience, when people rebel against something that is being imposed on them directly by the government, and what is essentially a private law arrangement between a business and their customers,” he said.

“In law, this is a fundamentally different situation. The bottom line is that you’re a customer and you signed a contract with your energy company.”

He explained: “If you don’t pay, the business is within its legal rights to cease providing energy to you. That doesn’t happen immediately. There’s lots of safeguards in place but ultimately, a court will have no difficulty in finding in favour of a business. Anyone who doesn’t pay is liable to not have any energy anymore.

“Secondly, anyone who doesn’t pay is going to have a debt. If you enter into a contract with a business, they provide services to you and you don’t pay, the business is entitled to take enforcement action with regard to the debt. If you have a debt judgement against you, that has implications not only with regard to you being found liable for the debt and to pay that back, but it also has wider implications on your ability to get credit in the future.”

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Organisers at Don’t Pay UK claim that if they get a “critical mass of people pledging to cancel their bills”, they can show “serious power to the energy companies and government who are taking us for a ride”.

But Rycroft argued: “Legally, there’s nothing in that argument at all. It is misunderstanding and then misconstruing the law to say, once you’ve reached a certain threshold, then it’s somehow allowed in law. There’s no legal basis for that argument whatsoever.”

Richard Lane, of the debt charity StepChange, added: “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.

“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.”

Don’t Pay UK admits energy suppliers may contact customers who don’t pay about disconnecting gas or electricity supply and their first port of call will be to try to install a prepayment meter. But they are adamant “power in numbers” will protect anyone who joins the campaign.

As support grows for Don't Pay UK, some are warning that there could be risks to cancelling your energy bills in October
Don’t Pay UK is a campaign calling on one million people to cancel their bills in October. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Don’t Pay UK did not respond to requests for comment, but their website reads: “If energy suppliers decide to try to disconnect people, they’ll be forced to first contact thousands, tens of thousands or even more customers about the possibility of disconnecting supply – but only after 28 days have passed. Then they’ll have to give a chance to set up a payment plan before, in most cases, applying to a court for a warrant. It’ll cause paralysis and create a months-long backlog.”

Organisers are anonymous and have no official affiliation with any organisation but they are receiving wide support. A spokesperson for campaign group Fuel Poverty Action said: “We understand that not paying bills may result in issues such as increased debt or worsened credit scores, and carries a risk of some people being put on prepayment metres or charged extra. It is vital for people joining the campaign to be fully informed of these risks.  

“However, the truth of the matter is that this coming winter, millions will not have a choice regarding this and will be unable to pay their bills, regardless. Therefore, whilst we encourage everyone to take stock of their own personal circumstances before participating in the campaign, we understand that drastic action must be taken to address the serious issues in our energy system. In the Don’t Pay campaign people are joining together in refusing to pay these bills, instead of hundreds of thousands having to do it on their own.”

Rycroft said: “This is an issue where a bigger answer is needed from someone higher up who has power way beyond that of the individual. There are measures that the government can take at different levels to sort it out.”

https://mobile.twitter.com/dontpayuk/status/1538280864232128512

The lawyer advised people to get in touch with their energy supplier if they are struggling to pay their bills. He believes that getting a million people to write to energy companies and say they are struggling and cannot pay their bills would be a more “compelling argument” than saying you won’t pay your bills. 

Citizens Advice also says energy companies have an obligation to help if you are struggling to pay your energy bills. “You should try to negotiate a deal that works for both of you,” their advice page says. There are a number of energy companies who offer grants and schemes to help people who need extra financial help. 

But campaigners at Don’t Pay UK argue we can’t rely on the government or energy companies to fix the problem. They say on their website: “We know the government won’t step in and give people the support they need. 

“Energy companies aren’t going to reduce prices out of the kindness of their hearts. We can’t expect the Labour party or trade unions to do what’s needed to force action on cost of living. The stakes couldn’t be any higher. Thousands of people will freeze to death in their homes.”

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Rycroft agreed government intervention is needed and praised the campaigners for acting as a voice for people’s concerns in the cost of living crisis. But he said: “I’m all about informed choices. If you as an individual understand that if you don’t pay your gas bill, you might be cut off and you understand the implications of that, then no one can argue with you wanting to take that stance. I think what’s worrying me is that people signing up may feel that they’ve got some kind of immunity from the law.”

A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition added: “Only a full programme of emergency financial support, a rapid expansion of energy efficiency programmes and a commitment to bringing more cheap renewable energy on stream will help people stay warm this winter and into the future.”

The coalition advises the public to get involved by telling MPs and councillors about their experiences of rising energy bills and asking them to act. A new campaign, Warm this Winter, is also launching this summer which will be providing the public with more ways to get involved and campaign to end fuel poverty. Fuel Poverty Action is also running a campaign Energy For All, calling for a free band of energy to cover each household’s basic needs. 

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