Two million people could have their gas and electricity cut off this winter because they cannot afford to top up their prepayment meter, new research suggests.
Citizens Advice has warned that having no gas and electricity would not be a “one-off” experience for many. It comes as a separate report suggests millions are living far below the poverty line in the UK. The government said it is spending billions on supporting households. The survey, conducted on behalf of the Citizens Advice charity, found that in 2023, some 1.7 million people disconnected from their prepayment meters at least once a month. It also suggests that of those who were cut off, some 800,000 people went without gas and electricity for more than 24 hours because they could not afford to top up, leaving them unable to take a shower or make a hot meal. The analysis is based on responses from more than 4,300 adults across Britain and the charity says it reflects what it is seeing on the ground. Citizens Advice is concerned that the situation has become even more difficult this year as the energy price cap increased in January, making both gas and electricity more expensive during the colder months.
As prepayment customers are unable to spread the cost of their energy payments throughout the year, it is more likely for customers to run out of credit and have supply knocked off during a colder patch. Muhammad lives alone in East London and has been struggling to top up his prepayment meter since losing his job in October. It is crucial for the 60-year-old to be able to heat his home because he is immunocompromised and must stay warm to help avoid respiratory infections and manage his arthritis. “I can’t be in a cold home…I kept having to top [my meter] up with my credit card and I built up a debt of £1,488,” he told the BBC. He received help from Citizens Advice, but the charity expects that this winter will be its busiest ever for advising people like Muhammad who are struggling to afford energy costs. The new research comes after the energy watchdog Ofgem confirmed that EDF, Octopus and Scottish Power had been granted permission to resume force-fitting prepayment meters in people’s homes after the practice was temporarily banned. For years, energy companies were able to force-fit meters in homes when bills went unpaid. But there was public outcry after an investigation found agents for British Gas had forced their way into the homes of vulnerable people, against the regulator’s rules.
While the rules have been updated, Citizens Advice is concerned that many are in debt to their energy suppliers, leaving them at risk of having a prepayment meter forcibly installed. Experts have predicted that domestic energy prices will fall by 16% in April, but it would still mean bills are higher than the norm before the cost of living spiked in the UK and many countries. Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Our frontline advisers are helping more people than ever who can’t pay their energy bill. “Without immediate action, we risk re-running this same crisis every winter.” It is now calling for government to work with Ofgem on a joint plan to deal with energy debts, as well as reforming the warm home discount, which it says should be increased and made available to a wider range of households. Separate research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that six million people in the UK were in very deep poverty in 2021-22. It defines this as people in households living on an amount 40% below the median income, after taking housing costs into account, and says this is 1.5 million more than 20 years ago.
It suggests many would need to more than double their income to escape poverty, In one example, a family made up of a couple with two children under the age of 14 in “very deep poverty” that had an income of £14,600 after housing costs, would need about £12,800 on top of their existing income just to reach the poverty line, the charity said. It warned that it was the sign of a “social failure at scale”. The group’s chief executive, Paul Kissack, said that political parties must set out their plans to “turn back the tide on poverty” as the country approaches a general election. A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security said it was spending “£104bn supporting households with their bills”. “While energy prices are lower than last winter, our Energy Price Guarantee remains in place to protect people until April, and we encourage anyone experiencing difficulties with their energy bills to speak with their supplier,” they added. A government spokesperson also said that it is investing billions in “breaking down barriers to work”, while cutting taxes “so hard-working people have more money in their pocket.”