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1 December 2022

Can’t pay, won’t pay: Britons face energy bill dilemma as the cold bites

A quarter of a million people plan to cancel their direct debits, while two million are in debt to energy firms – and winter has only just begun.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Hopes of a mild winter in the UK are dropping along with the mercury. On 28 November, the Met Office said the month would end with the “coldest spell of the autumn so far”, predicting temperatures to dip to -3°C in southern England.

Yet as the cold sets in, many Brits are unable to switch the heating on. Energy bills, double what they were last winter, are too high for the more than two million people that are already in debt to energy companies. As consumers do not pay their bills, they are forced on to pre-payment meters, which require topping up and cost more than the direct debit system. They also enable desperate people to “self-disconnect” to reduce costs.

While pre-payment installation is supposed to be a last resort, 20,000 households a month are being moved on to pre-payment meters at the moment, according to the End Fuel Poverty Coalition. This is in spite of the government’s energy price guarantee, which caps unit prices to ensure the average household energy bill is £2,500 until next April.

[See also: Energy prepayment meters are a national disgrace]

If millions “can’t pay”, there is also a smaller – but influential – “won’t pay” contingent. More than 250,000 people pledged to stop paying their energy bills on 1 December in a “bill strike”. They are participating in the Don’t Pay UK campaign, which is protesting for energy companies and the government to introduce fairer energy provision. This would include reversing the price hike to its pre-April 2021 level of £1,042 a year, scrapping enforced pre-payment meters, and the introduction of a social tariff for lower-income households – an idea backed by the consumer champion Martin Lewis and now being considered in the Treasury.

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In early September, before the announcement of the energy price guarantee, 6 per cent of Britons (which would mean more than three million people) said they would cancel their payments on 1 October. The protest is inspired by 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).

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[See also: “I’m not cutting down on cups of tea”: the Brits refusing to pay their energy bills]

From a cornershop owner facing the loss of his family business to a pensioner who could no longer afford day trips, the New Statesman met Brits refusing to pay their energy bills in September.

A lot has changed since then. Liz Truss’s short-lived government brought in a subsidy that would have limited energy costs to an average of £2,500 per household for a year. Don’t Pay can claim some of the credit for this. Documents revealed by OpenDemocracy show that the threat of mass non-payment was part of the energy firm E.On’s lobbying of the then-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng in August – calling Don’t Pay UK an “existential” risk. This unit price guarantee was watered down by the following chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, and from April the average bill will rise to £3,000.

Despite the government intervention keeping costs lower than they would be currently, many more people are expected to default on their energy bills – either by necessity or choice – this winter.

“I’m normally responsible, well organised, I don’t go into debt,” said Zoë Howard, 51, a web developer in the Cornish town of St Austell who cancelled her direct debit to her energy company in September. She lives with her partner and teenage son in a three-bed terraced house, which they own with a mortgage, on a small estate in town.

Their household had been paying £90 a month in direct debit. From 2 December, when their next bill is due, they will refuse to pay. “Making myself go into debt is scary, and I do still feel some apprehension, but I’ll hold out as long as I can.”

While Howard said she can afford her next bill, she is having to tighten all her spending and could not afford for energy bills to reach any higher than the £2,500 current average. Yet she is mainly bill-striking in solidarity with those who “can’t afford to pay, who are already in debt, or are vulnerable and should be protected from dying of cold”.

Howard feels she has to make “a stand” against energy providers’ big profits (more than £1bn in February) and their amassed £4.5bn in customer credit, which is not ringfenced.

Simon Howard (who is not related to the previous interviewee), a tradesman in his forties, switched his direct debit to a standing order in October – to block his energy firm from adjusting how much it takes. He lives in the Midlands with his partner, who works in the public sector, and two young children, in a house they own on a mortgage. They are spending £72 a month on energy, but on 1 December they will either reduce their payments to just pay for the energy they use, or to a token low amount.

“This is a poll tax moment: it affects everyone”

“We’re going to go on strike, but we need to come to a family decision about how,” he told me. They have only received a couple of letters from their energy supplier about stopping their direct debit, and Howard isn’t concerned about repercussions. “F**k ‘em,” he said. “If there’s a mass foot-dragging, what can they really do?”

He calls the energy market “a ludicrous system” and “exploitative”, and hopes the protest will lead to a “national conversation” about how to end fuel poverty.

Although he could afford to keep paying, he said “it depends on how you define ‘afford’ – we wouldn’t starve, but do I really want to hand my money directly over just to heat and eat, like working in a workhouse?”

While the government is trying to devise an even less generous energy support scheme for next April, its current subsidy over the winter still seems to be lacking – and poorly communicated. Nearly half of Britons (a plurality at 46 per cent) still wrongly believe the energy price guarantee means “no household is having to pay more than £2,500 per year”, according to new polling published by Yahoo.

“This is a poll tax moment,” said Zoë Howard, whose student house refused to pay the poll tax back in the Nineties. “It’s not about party politics – this affects everybody.”