Consumer strike: Don’t Pay UK energy bills campaign explained, what the government is doing about rising bills

The government has accused campaigners of being ‘highly irresponsible’ in calling for mass non-payment of energy bills

Campaigners are attempting to orchestrate what could be the largest consumer strike in UK history, unless the expected hike in the energy tariff in October is not reversed.

Money saving expert Martin Lewis has called on the Government to “get a handle on the situation,” while a spokesperson at the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) described the campaign as “highly irresponsible”.

What is the Don’t Pay energy bills campaign?

The campaign has been set up by members of the public frustrated by the rising cost of energy.

It is calling on people to pledge non-payment of their energy bills in October should the Government not intervene on the planned rise in the energy tariff.

The Don’t Pay campaign has signed up thousands of people across all parts of the UK to act as ‘organisers’, distributing leaflets and spreading the message to friends and acquaintances.

After rising by around £800 earlier this year, the price cap on energy bills set by Ofgem - the government regulator of the energy market - is set to rise again by a similar amount in October.

Ofgem is expected to announce the level of the October price cap on 26 August, although analysts have forecast a significant rise.

The cap rose by 54% in April, to £1,971, but could reach as much as £3,200 later this year.

The Government maintains that nothing can be done to prevent energy prices rising for consumers, because wholesale gas prices have risen significantly globally, in part due to the war in Ukraine.

However, many have pointed to record profits posted by major fossil fuel companies such as Shell and BP, which ultimately supply main domestic energy firms, as proof that price-rises are at least in part being driven by excess profits.

The Don’t Pay campaign wants at least one million people to commit to not paying their energy bills, comparing their efforts to the widespread refusal to pay the poll tax introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, first in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales from 1990.

Millions of people refused to register and pay the new flat-rate tax, which was widely considered to be unfair towards those on lower incomes.

Following a number of high profile protests and widespread opposition to the tax, including through non-payment campaigns, the poll tax was eventually scrapped by John Major’s Conservative government in 1992.

A BEIS spokesperson said: “This is highly irresponsible messaging, which ultimately will only push up prices for everyone else and affect personal credit ratings.

“We recognise that global inflationary pressures are squeezing household finances and people are struggling. That’s why the ​Government has introduced an extraordinary £37 billion to help households in these challenging times, including £1200 each for 8 million of the most vulnerable households.”

What is the Government doing about the rise in energy prices?

Back in May, Rishi Sunak announced that millions of households will receive a £400 discount off their energy bills, as part of a wider package to help ease the cost of living crisis.

Eight million low income households will benefit from the payment, which will be paid in two lump sums - one from July and the other from autumn.

Mr Sunak said it will give vulnerable people "certainty that we are standing by them at this challenging time", but added that the government would also provide “universal” support.

Speaking on ITV’s Peston show, Martin Lewis acknowledged that there is a “big movement” of people calling for “mass non-payment” of energy bills.

He said: "The big movement that I am seeing is an increase of growth in people calling for a non-payment of energy bills, mass non-payment.

"Effectively a consumer strike on energy bills and getting rid of the legitimacy of paying that.

He added: "We need the Government to get a handle on that because once it starts becoming socially acceptable not to pay energy bills people will stop paying energy bills and you’re not going to cut everyone off."

What happens if you don’t pay your energy bills?

The Government has warned that refusal to pay energy bills could put households into debt and affect personal credit ratings.

The Don’t Pay campaign has specified that those on pre-payment meters will not be able to participate in the consumer strike, as they will simply be cut off as soon as their balance reaches 0.

For those not on pre-payment meters, energy companies could cut off supply over non-payment, although this is rare and likely would not happen straight away if payment wasn’t made at the usual time.

The campaigners say they will not go ahead with the mass non-payment if not enough people sign up, as this would not have enough of an impact and would put people at risk of debt with little chance of affecting change.

In a statement on their website, Don’t Pay said that energy customers “are people, families and households whose energy bills are going up.”

“It’s not unrealistic to say we could reach 1 million people to start a non-payment strike. The potential leverage is huge.”

“With 1 million people, we can withhold £230 million for 28 days before energy companies can take any action. And then we can withhold another £230 million each month - possibly even more as the weather gets colder through winter and we use more energy. Possibly even more as more people start joining the strike.”

An Ofgem spokesperson said: “We know that this is an incredibly tough time for many people who are seeing their bills increase as a result of very high wholesale gas prices.

“We will continue to work with the government and the energy sector to try to mitigate the impact of these rises as much as we can, including through helping to deliver the Government’s Energy Bill Support Scheme.”