A charity is calling for a ban on energy companies “forcing” customers onto prepayment meters after an estimated 3.2 million people in the UK were cut off last year because they ran out of credit.
Citizens Advice said this is the equivalent of one person being disconnected every 10 seconds as they could not afford to top up the meter.
Based on Ofgem figures, it estimates that 600,000 people were forced on to the pay-as-you-go method last year, and predicts 160,000 more could be moved on to a prepayment meter by the end of winter if no action is taken.
The advisory service, which is the consumer watchdog for the energy market, said it saw more people who were unable to top up their prepayment meter in 2022 than in the whole of the last 10 years combined.
Furthermore, more than two million people were being disconnected at least once a month and 19% of those cut off in the past year then spent at least 24 hours without gas or electricity, leaving them unable to turn the heating on or cook a hot meal.
Citizens Advice said it was particularly concerned about disabled people and those living with long-term health conditions as its findings showed almost one in five households (18%), including someone in this group who ran out of credit last year, went on to spend two days or more without energy supply.
Ofgem stipulates that certain groups such as disabled people and those with long-term health conditions should not be forced on to a prepayment meter. Citizens Advice previously raised concerns to Ofgem and the government that it had seen evidence of suppliers forcing people in these groups on to prepayment meters.
In October, Ofgem warned suppliers that not enough was being done to identify customers in vulnerable circumstances before installing a prepayment meter, but in the month following Ofgem’s intervention, the charity said more than a third of prepayment meter households including a disabled person, or someone with a long term health-condition, were cut off from their energy supply at least once.
‘New protections are needed’
Citizen’s Advice is now calling for a total ban on forced prepayment meter installations until new protections are introduced, ensuring households can no longer be fully cut off from gas and electricity.
It said it had heard from people forced on to a prepayment meter who were unable to top up even though their medication needed to be refrigerated, and a single parent with a young baby who was left in the cold and dark for 48 hours after her supplier switched her to a meter.
Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty said: “All too often the people finding it hardest to pay their bills are being forced on to a prepayment meter they can’t afford to top up. This puts them at real risk of being left in cold, damp and dark homes. 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.”
A government spokesman said it expects energy suppliers to do “all they can to help customers” who are struggling to pay their energy bills, adding that “suppliers can only install prepayment meters without consent to recover debt as a last resort”.
The spokesman added: “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.”