“It’s not normal in this country for us to talk about money. But this is different,” said Fern Bast, sipping a black tea in her colourful living room. The 69-year-old pensioner, who used to design theatre props and sets before a stint as a council housing officer, has had enough.
“This house is refusing to pay energy bills,” declared a hazard tape-style yellow-and-black-striped poster plastered on her front window – above the pots of jasmine and carnations jumbled on the pavement in front of her rented terrace.
Earlier this year, her monthly energy bill rose from £110 to £179 when her provider folded and she was moved to Shell. Last month, she cancelled her direct debit. She is refusing to pay her energy bill, and she is not alone.
On this quiet cul-de-sac in Todmorden, a West Yorkshire market town in the Calder Valley, some of her neighbours are joining her, others are not – but all are worried about the winter.
How much are energy bills rising?
Don’t Pay, a UK protest movement, has 133,650 Britons (at the time of writing) pledging to go on “bill strike” come 1 October, when the energy price cap will rise by 80 per cent. It takes inspiration from the mass non-payment of the poll tax in 1990, when 17 million refused to pay Margaret Thatcher’s hated community charge (reversed the following year).
Bast is on the group’s media team. Disabled from a back injury, she can’t go to rallies. “I was a bit frustrated, because I’m not really an armchair activist: having a moan on Facebook just doesn’t cut it for me,” she said.
“I can write to Ofgem, I can write to Shell – and I have done – but they’re not going to listen to me. It’s not going to make a difference. The only thing that’s going to make a difference is to hit them where it hurts, with the money.”
Bast lives on a fixed income: the basic state pension of £141.85 a week, plus £80 a month from her Islington Council pension. She is a carer for her son, who is mentally ill and lives semi-independently down the road, and her mother, who has just gone into dementia care. “That’s something that concerns me; the care home is treated as a business, so it doesn’t have a cap [on energy costs]… And they can’t turn the electricity down or anything.” (The energy price cap doesn’t apply to businesses.)
“Thinking of the poll tax and civil unrest, it’s a huge thing. Isn’t it awful, but I actually hope [Don’t Pay] does [lead to civil unrest],” said Bast. “We’ve got to shift this. That’s all we’ve got… It’s all very well saying ‘don’t pay’, but we’ll be back to ‘can’t pay’. We’ll be back to street kitchens.”
Don’t Pay is demanding energy bills are reduced to a more affordable level (some activists involved suggest pre-April prices, before the impact of the Ukraine invasion kicked in). If this is ignored, they will encourage their supporters to cancel their direct debits by 1 October only if pledges reach 1 million. Yet already, people the New Statesman heard from are saying they either cannot, or will not, pay.
Around the corner from the cul-de-sac, at the Hussein Brothers convenience store, Abid Hussein also has a Don’t Pay poster up above his boxes of pears. Between serving customers, the 59-year-old – who has run the family shop for 40 years – told the New Statesman he backs the protest, and would refuse to pay his own bills. Since February, his monthly electricity bill alone has risen from £400 to £1,350, and will rise again in October.
“I agree with it [Don’t Pay] because I think energy prices are far too high. If everybody sticks together, the government might take notice, if everybody cancels their direct debit. It sends a strong message. I’ll do it, I’ll join it,” he said. “I’m worried for my future kids and my nephews and nieces; we’re into the third generation now – I can’t see [our shop] going beyond that, things aren’t looking good.”
Judi Richards, a 68-year-old NHS mental health worker who has been a customer at Hussein Brothers for 30 years, popped into the shop and said she backed Don’t Pay: “I think people should do that but I’m a bit of a wimp so I’m probably not going to because I can just about cover it,” she said. “But I understand, because why are they making profits when people can’t afford to eat or put the gas and electricity on? Something’s not right.”
How many people are refusing to pay their energy bills?
People are protesting against energy price rises across the country.
At a rally on 30 August run by another new cost-of-living campaign group, Enough is Enough, 1,500 people packed into the grand setting of Manchester Cathedral to hear the dean of Manchester, Rogers Govender, and the mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, urge the government for more help amid spiralling inflation. Another 1,500 stood outside cheering.
Govender, standing among other local faith leaders, told the crowd how people sometimes come and sit in the cathedral all day “because it’s warmer than it is in their own homes”.
Burnham described this campaign as “broad-based”, with aims (such as energy renationalisation, and raising taxes on the top 5 per cent) supported by “the majority”. Standing at a podium beneath the cathedral’s gleaming organ, he called these demands “moral as much as they are political” and urged the audience to “keep the faith”.
Don’t Pay claims it has a broad appeal. “Lots of movements don’t go beyond your regular crusty activists, whereas this affects everybody. But it really affects the poor very immediately and directly,” said Patrick, a 24-year-old software developer in Manchester and Don’t Pay community organiser. “If I was handing out, say, Black Lives Matter or trans rights stickers, then there wouldn’t be the same spread of different people [engaging with me], I think.”
At Don’t Pay’s rally outside the energy regulator Ofgem’s offices on 26 August, when the latest energy cap rise was announced, wealthy professionals and retired homeowners joined young activists in the glass and steel jungle of Canary Wharf, chanting: “Freeze profits, not people!” and “Bill hike? Pay strike!”
“This isn’t a personal thing, I’m here for solidarity,” said Caroline Nicholas, a 64-year-old pensioner in London who owns her own flat. “They need to freeze the prices or people will die; inflation feels worse now than it did in the Seventies because inequality wasn’t as bad then as it is now. I’ll wait until October and if the protest is something that carries on then I’ll cancel my direct debit.”
“We’ve stopped our direct debits and I hope someone will take notice,” said Neil, 44, who works in the tech industry in London. “I am speaking from a place of privilege; I could afford to pay it, but I think it’s unfair that millions of households will be in poverty with these prices, and the energy companies are making billions in profits when people are struggling.”
As an alternative form of protest, he had also complained to his energy provider because his smart meter was faulty. Opening a complaint means your energy supplier has to hold fire on triggering debt collection work on your account, and once the complaint is escalated to the energy ombudsman – if it’s valid – then the energy company is charged £500, even if the complaint isn’t ultimately upheld.
[See also: Can Norway save us from the energy crisis?]
What happens if I don’t pay my energy bills?
Debt charities and consumer champions are warning people about the risks of refusing to not to pay their bills. According to Citizens Advice, your supplier can move you on to a prepayment meter, which are more expensive, or in very rare cases disconnect you (the latest figures show that in 2020, just one person was disconnected from gas due to debt, and zero from electricity).
Energy debt could affect your credit rating. Debt collectors can be sent by your energy company, and in very extreme circumstances a court could send a bailiff round.
“If you’re unable to keep up with payments, there are rules which mean your energy supplier has to help you,” said Gillian Cooper, head of energy policy at Citizens Advice. “If you talk to them they might be able to offer emergency credit or a more affordable payment plan.”
“I think if people choose not to pay their bills, which they are well within their rights to do as a protest, it could increase your costs, put a black mark on your credit score, and if you don’t stop, you could lose your access to energy,” added Matt Copeland of National Energy Action, a fuel poverty charity. “It’s important that people know the consequences of not paying and make a decision really carefully before they do decide to join the movement.”
He also warned that opening a complaint as a protest is not “consequence-free”. “While that may not come at any cost to you personally, there are many households that have genuine complaints that are worth hundreds, if not thousands, and extra complaints mean they might be shifted down the order of priority, which is a big worry for us.”
What do energy companies say when you stop paying?
Energy industry insiders are watching the protest closely. “It’s going to be an incredibly difficult position to put energy retailers in,” said Mike Foster, CEO of the Energy and Utilities Alliance, the energy company trade association. “If you were head of comms at British Gas or Octopus or whoever, thinking ‘do we take these people to court for not paying their bills? Or do we disconnect them?’ That’s not an enviable decision…
“Government has got to make [a] major intervention ahead of this Don’t Pay protest, which is really gathering momentum and causing major difficulties for individuals and for the energy industry.”
Foster remembers when people first threatened not to pay the poll tax. “First, it was ‘is this serious?’ And ultimately, we ended up with riots, the fall of a prime minister, and a change of system completely. You’ve got a precedent for it, and there’s nothing to stop it happening again.”
The New Statesman has contacted Ovo, Octopus, SSE, EDF, Eon, Scottish Power and British Gas about the campaign. None responded other than Ovo, whose spokesperson commented: “We encourage any customer of ours who is struggling to pay for their energy to get in touch and know that we’ve supported lots of people in similar situations and we can support you too.”
One senior source at a major energy supplier dismissed the Don’t Pay movement as a “flash in the pan”, and “a political campaign by proxy rather than a grassroots movement from people who are genuinely worried about bills”.
Yet they admitted a “big concern” was that the movement would reach significant numbers, and they would have to distinguish between customers “who can pay, but are choosing not to” and “who can’t” – and therefore how lenient to be. “That means people who really need it are probably going to get less help,” they threatened.
“The thing is, energy companies are the wrong target,” said Dale Vince, owner of the green energy company Ecotricity. “The windfall profits are coming from the oil and gas sector. Energy suppliers are simply the piggy in the middle… If it [Don’t Pay] became a mass movement and enough people did it, it wouldn’t take very long to bankrupt some energy companies if enough customers just didn’t pay.”
Back in Todmorden, Fern Bast is settling in her new kitten, Bob, donated by a neighbour. She is disgusted by the advice from politicians and energy companies to change lifestyle and cut back on usage (Ovo had to apologise in January for recommending its customers keep warm by doing star jumps).
“I’ve never used more energy than I need. I don’t waste stuff. The washing machine goes on once a week. I’m not using the oven as much, maybe once a week. I’m not cutting down on my cups of tea,” she said.
“‘Star jumps?’ My back would love that. It’s obscene, and shows how out of touch they are. I’ve had a very full life, but I didn’t think at nearly 70 I wouldn’t be able to afford go on holiday, or go out on a day trip. I’m not going to sit here, covered in blankets. It’s not going to make a difference.”