Energy suppliers must do more
Research from Citizens Advice has found that 140,000 households in Great Britain, around 400,000 people, have been left without gas or electricity because they didn't have enough money to top up their prepayment meter (PPM).
The vast majority, 120,000 households, have people living there who may be vulnerable to being without heat and power, such as a child or someone with a long-term health condition.
Of those that self-disconnected, when prepay customers lose supply due to a lack of funds on the meter, 50 per cent had someone with a mental health condition, 33 per cent contained a young child and 87 per cent were in receipt of benefits.
Just nine per cent self-disconnected because they could not afford to contact their supplier to discuss the issue. While many suppliers now offer discretionary credit, Citizens Advice says more needs to be done to ensure people are aware of the support that is available.
It is calling for measures to ensure potentially vulnerable households are more easily identified and prevented from having to deal with the effects of living in cold, dark homes.
The research found that 1.9 million people living in homes with a PPM (640,000 households) have found themselves without gas or electricity through not having sufficient funds. This is largely unchanged from research conducted in 2014.
Two-thirds (65 per cent) of PPM households have a child or someone with a long-term health condition living there. One in six (16 per cent) of all PPM users have self-disconnected, a figure which rises to just over one in four (28 per cent) for those with a mental health condition.
For some, self-disconnection is just an inconvenience, while for others the impacts are much more severe. Half of those surveyed said it had negative physical and emotional impacts.
Of these, 59 per cent said they were left in cold homes, 43 per cent said they were left without lights, 35 per cent said they weren’t able to wash, and 17 per cent felt ashamed or embarrassed.
One of the people Citizens Advice has helped with this problem is Tom, who lives alone in a council property.
He said: “It’s really stressful if you run out of electric. Imagine if you’ve got no electric and no gas so you’ve got no heating. You’ve got no entertainment, there’s nothing to do. You’re just sitting waiting for the next day to come or until you can contact somebody.
“You feel depressed, anxious and annoyed – all sorts of emotions.”
The charity says that localisation of emergency welfare and a lack of co-ordination between privately-run schemes has resulted in a patchwork of support, which can be difficult to access.
It is calling on industry and the Government to take measures to reduce the impact of self-disconnection on vulnerable customers.
Specifically, it is arguing that:
• Energy suppliers should review whether they have suitable systems to identify whether a household is at risk of harm from self-disconnection before a prepayment meter is installed, or where an existing customer has reported difficulty topping up their meter.
• Systems should ensure that where vulnerable people are put onto prepayment meters they are not left without supply.
• The Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentres should explore ways to improve co-ordination with suppliers to ensure vulnerable customers are given help to prevent self-disconnection.
• Energy UK should use its Commission On Customers In Vulnerable Circumstances to conduct a review of the support available to vulnerable energy customers who ask for it when they’ve self-disconnected.