140,000 UK households can’t afford to top up prepayment energy meter

Around 400,000 people in Great Britain have been left without gas or electricity because they didn’t have enough money to top up their prepayment meter (PPM), according to new research from Citizens Advice.

The charity found that the vast majority of these households (120,000) have people living there who may be particularly vulnerable to being without heat and power, such as a child or someone with a long-term health condition.

Of the 140,000 households that self-disconnected - when prepay energy customers lose supply of energy to their home due to a lack of funds on the meter - because they couldn’t afford to cover their energy costs:

  • 50% had someone with a mental health condition
  • 33% contained a young child
  • 87% were in receipt of benefits
  • The charity is concerned by findings which show that just 9% people who self-disconnected because they could not afford to contacted their supplier to discuss the issue. While many suppliers now offer access to discretionary credit, Citizens Advice says more needs to be done to ensure people are aware of the support that is available.

    Citizens Advice is calling for a series of measures to ensure potentially vulnerable households at risk of self-disconnection are more easily identified, and prevented from having to deal with the effects of living in cold and dark homes.

    The research found that 1.9m people living in homes with a PPM (640,000 households) have found themselves without gas or electricity through not having sufficient funds on their meters. This is largely unchanged from previous research conducted in 2014.

    The charity’s findings show how potentially vulnerable households are particularly at risk of being left without heat or power. The research found that two thirds (65%) of all PPM households have a child or someone with a long-term health condition living there. For those self-disconnecting the problem is even more acute - over 7 in 10 (72%) of households that self-disconnected contained one of these groups.

    People with mental health conditions are also particularly affected, 1 in 6 (16%) of all PPM users have self-disconnected, a figure which rises to just over 1 in 4 (28%) for PPM users with a mental health condition.

    For some, self-disconnection is just a minor inconvenience, while for others the impacts are much more severe. Half of those surveyed said that self-disconnection had negative physical and emotional impacts, of these:

    • 59% said they were left in cold homes
    • 43% said they were left without lights
    • 35% said they weren’t able to wash
    • 17% said they felt ashamed or embarrassed
    • The charity says that the localisation of emergency welfare and a lack of coordination between privately run schemes has resulted in a patchwork of support which can be difficult and confusing for people 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 in place to identify whether a household is at risk of harm from self-disconnection before a prepayment meter is installed, or where an existing prepayment meter customer has reported they have difficulty topping up their meter.
      • Energy suppliers should put in place systems and processes to ensure that where vulnerable people are put onto prepayment meters that they are not left without supply.
      • DWP and Jobcentres should explore ways to improve coordination with suppliers to ensure vulnerable customers are given help to prevent self-disconnection.
      • Energy UK should use its upcoming Commission on Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances to conduct a review of the support available to vulnerable energy customers who ask for support when they’ve self-disconnected.
      • Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “It unacceptable that so many vulnerable households are being left without heat and light.

        “For some people self-disconnection is easily managed, but for many others it is an extremely stressful experience that can have harmful physical and emotional effects.

        “While some suppliers are now offering support to prepayment meter customers, industry and the Government need to do more. We need better mechanisms to identify vulnerable customers, better coordination between suppliers and government agencies and we need suppliers to ensure that when people’s health is at risk alternative ways to pay are offered.”

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