More than two million people will have their gas and electricity cut off this winter because they cannot afford to top up their prepayment meter, Citizens Advice has said.
The charity said it was concerned that having no gas and electricity would not be a “one-off” experience for many, after finding that 1.7 million people disconnected at least once a month last year.
Some 800,000 people went for more than 24 hours without gas and electricity last year because they could not afford to top up, leaving them unable to make a hot meal or take a warm shower.
The charity raised its concerns after Ofgem announced that it had permitted EDF, Octopus and Scottish Power to return to forcibly fitting prepayment meters (PPMs) after they were temporarily banned after a scandal around the practice.
Citizens Advice said it expected this to be its busiest winter for helping people who cannot afford to top up, with its latest research suggesting that more than five million people live in households that are in debt to their energy supplier, putting them at risk of debt collection and being forced on to a prepayment meter.
Its survey found that one in four people cannot afford their essential bills and one in 10 households have had to borrow money in the past six months to cover their energy bills.
Half of those in debt to their energy supplier (49%) have turned off the heating in their homes, while 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, the survey found.
Citizens Advice said it wanted to see urgent reform of the warm home discount, which had failed to keep pace with rising prices and should be increased and made available to a wider range of households.
The charity also wants the Government to work with Ofgem to develop a joint action plan to deal with energy debt, including increased funding for support to help meet spiralling demand.
Citizens Advice said it was particularly worried about households with children under four, who were twice as likely to be in debt and to be forced to disconnect from their gas and electricity than those without children.
Half of prepayment meter users with children under four had disconnected in the past year because they could not afford to top up, compared with a quarter (23%) of people with no children, the charity found.
Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty said: “Our frontline advisers are helping more people than ever who can’t pay their energy bill.
“Record numbers are in debt to their supplier and millions with a prepayment meter are too often going without heating and hot meals because they can’t afford to top up.
“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.”
An Ofgem spokesman said: “Ofgem shares the concerns of Citizens Advice about the issue of rising debt and customers self-disconnecting from their energy supply amid the wider cost of living pressures.
“We already have introduced tougher rules to make sure that energy companies do more to spot the signs when a customer may be struggling and step in to offer support, including working out affordable payment plans and providing emergency credit to reduce the risk of self-disconnection.
“We work closely with Citizens Advice and other consumer groups and charities to address the issues people are facing and we will continue to explore more options to help struggling and vulnerable customers.”
A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesman said: “We recognise the cost-of-living challenges families are facing, which is why we are spending £104 billion 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.
“We’re also continuing to support the most vulnerable, with three million households expected to benefit from the £150 Warm Home Discount, £900 for those on means-tested benefits, and an extra £150 for disabled people.”
Vulnerable customers can sign up for assistance via the free priority services register via the Ofgem website, http://www.ofgem.gov.uk/get-help-your-supplier-priority-services-register.
Yonder surveyed 4,338 adults in Great Britain between December 6-18.
Published: by Radio NewsHub