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

New 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 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.

Overall levels of self-disconnection remain high

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.

Cold and dark homes, stress and anxiety - the impact of self-disconnection

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

One of the people Citizens Advice has helped with this problem is Tom (not his real name), who lives alone in a council property. He said:

“That’s really stressful if you run out of electric. Imagine, if you put yourself in your home and you’ve got no electric and you’ve got no gas so you’ve got no heating. You’ve got no entertainment, there’s nothing to do. You’re just sitting there waiting for the next day to come or until you can contact somebody. You feel depressed, you feel anxious, feel annoyed - all sorts of emotions.”

Suppliers and the Government must do more

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.”

Notes to editors

  1. Citizens Advice commissioned Accent research to survey 8,171 citizens across Great Britain between December 2017 and January 2018. Of these 1,226 were prepayment meter users. They conducted 10 in-depth interviews.  We also surveyed our local network in February 2018 to understand the experience of people seeking help and support from their local Citizens Advice. We received 428 responses.

  2. Citizens Advice has a statutory role as the consumer advocate for energy consumers across the UK.

  3. The Citizens Advice service comprises a network of local Citizens Advice, all of which are independent charities, the Citizens Advice consumer service and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more see the Citizens Advice website .

  4. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.

  5. To get advice online or find your local Citizens Advice in England and Wales, visit citizensadvice.org.uk

  6. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers.

  7. Local Citizens Advice in England and Wales advised 2.5 million clients on 6.2 million problems in 2014/15. For full service statistics see our publication  Advice trends .

  8. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 21,000 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 service outlets across England and Wales.