Social Justice

Millions are going without heating or hot water because they can't afford to top up their meter

In 2022, Citizens Advice saw more people unable to top up their prepayment meter than in the whole of the last 10 years combined

prepayment meters/ cold dark home

People are left without power in cold, dark homes when they cannot afford to top up their meters. Image: Pexels

Every 10 seconds, a prepayment meter runs out of credit and families are left without power in a cold, dark home because they cannot afford to top up.

Stark new research from Citizens Advice has found that 3.2 million people across the UK ran out of credit on their prepayment meter last year because they didn’t have enough money. 

Hundreds of thousands have been forced onto prepayment meters by their energy suppliers, which can obtain warrants to install the meters when customers fall into debt.

They are typically more expensive than paying by direct debit and charities have criticised them for trapping people in poverty. Citizens Advice has said energy companies must be banned from forcing customers onto prepayment meters until new protections are brought in.

“It’s outrageous that people on prepayment meters have to pay more for their energy,” said Labour’s shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband, responding to the new figures. “Why should those with the least have to pay more to heat their homes and put the lights on? It’s unjustifiable and morally wrong.”

He claimed a Labour government would “bring down energy once and for all” and “build a fairer, stronger economy, getting it growing so we can lift living standards for all”. 

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A government spokesperson said: “We know it is a difficult time for families across the country. That is why we have acted swiftly to provide support.”

The government introduced support for household energy bills in October after average prices for gas and electricity more than doubled in the space of a year. This includes the energy price guarantee, energy rebate and cost of living payments for the most vulnerable.

It still left most households paying significantly more for energy at a time when prices were rising across the board, squeezing incomes and driving millions more into poverty. Energy bills are expected to soar to £3,000 per year in April.

In 2022, Citizens Advice saw more people unable to top up their prepayment meter than in the whole of the last 10 years combined. For most it’s not just a one off, with more than two million people being disconnected at least once a month. 

More than one in five (19 per cent) prepayment meter customers cut off in the past year spent at least 24 hours without gas or electricity as a result, leaving them unable to turn the heating on or cook a hot meal.

Citizens Advice is especially concerned about disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. Nearly one in five households with someone who is disabled or ill ran out of credit last year and went on to spend two days or more without energy supply. 

Louise Rubin, head of policy and campaigns at disability charity Scope, said: “We regularly hear from disabled people who have been moved on to prepayment meters, disabled people who are freezing in their homes and parents who are going hungry to feed their children.”

Rona, a disabled mother whose daughter has special educational needs, told Citizens Advice she sat in the cold and dark over Christmas. She had struggled to cope with rising energy bills and got into debt with her supplier.

Without warning, her supplier switched her smart meter to prepayment mode, she told the charity, leaving her without gas and electricity. 

“Just before Christmas my power went off,” Rona said. “I assumed it was a power cut. I had no way to make any calls, so my daughter and I were left in the dark all night with no heating, lights or means of making any food. I was really anxious.”

Her local Citizens Advice spoke to her supplier and found they’d switched the smart meter to a prepayment one. 

“I explained that I was on the priority services register,” she added. “I also said I’m in a wheelchair and unable to access my meter, but none of it made a difference. I’m now reliant on my sister or her husband to go to the post office to help me top up my meter.

“Over Christmas I went without energy because the credit ran out, and the post office was closed, so my daughter and I sat there cold, in the dark. How can I live like this?”

Data obtained exclusively by The Big Issue last year showed courts had granted hundreds of thousands of warrants to energy companies to allow them to enter customers’ homes and forcibly install prepayment meters.

Citizens Advice previously raised concerns to Ofgem and the government that it had seen evidence of suppliers forcing people in these groups onto prepayment meters. In October, Ofgem warned suppliers that not enough was being done to identify customers in vulnerable circumstances before installing a prepayment meter.

The charity has seen a 229 per cent increase in the past year in the number of people coming for help who can’t afford to top up their prepayment meter. 

A single parent with a young baby was left in the cold and the dark for 48 hours after her supplier switched her to a meter she couldn’t keep topped up. People have been forced onto prepayment meters and unable to top up even though their medication needs to be refrigerated. 

Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “The staggering rise in the cost of living means many simply cannot afford to heat and power their homes to safe levels. 

“New protections are needed to stop people being fully cut off from gas and electricity. Until then, there must be a total ban on energy companies forcing those already at breaking point onto prepayment meters. If Ofgem doesn’t act, the government must intervene.” 

Peter Smith, director of policy at National Energy Action, added: “Imagine not being able to cook, not being able to charge up a phone to call relatives, having daily cold showers, eating off dirty plates and having no clean clothes. It’s the definition of misery and it’s happening every day in millions of homes across the UK.

National Energy Action is supporting growing calls for a ban on the forced installation of prepayment meters, while demanding that those paying for their energy by cash or cheque should not pay more for their energy compared with direct debit. 

“We also need to develop a bespoke plan to stop people self-disconnecting,” Smith added. “This means rewiring the energy market to provide more affordable tariffs and address the underlying debt issues which mean that once people get stuck on prepayment meters, they rarely get off them again.” 

Scope is also calling for “quicker and stricter sanctions for energy suppliers”. Rubin said: “The government must introduce a social tariff – a discounted energy rate – for disabled people before it’s too late.”

A government spokesperson added: “The government expects energy suppliers to do all they can to help customers who are struggling to pay their bills and suppliers can only install prepayment meters without consent to recover debt as a last resort.  

“The regulator Ofgem requires energy suppliers to offer solutions for customers in, or at risk of, debt or disconnection. This includes offering emergency credit to all prepayment meter customers and additional support credit to customers in vulnerable circumstances.”

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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. 

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