People have been left without heating this winter as energy companies move customers on to expensive pre-payment meters. ITV News Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker reports.
“I think it’s the most disgusting behaviour I have had to deal with. Ever.”
Audrey Risdon, 81, was in hospital for four weeks after a fall when her energy firm moved her on to a pre-payment meter without warning. The pensioner from Hampshire had her power supply shut off because she didn’t know she had to top up.
“In all, it must have been over two weeks that I had no heating…and total darkness as everything went out. I’ve got a neighbour up the road, I used to have to walk up there and see if he could put some money on for this card,” Ms Risdon told ITV News.
“It was absolutely disgusting, it was unbelievable,” she said.
Suffering from mobility issues and on pension credit, Ms Risdon struggled to afford the taxi bills to get to the shops to pay to top up her meter. She’d already cut back on showers and cooking to save money as energy costs have soared.
'They decided to cut me off': Audrey Risdon was left without lights or heating for over two weeks after the switch
The meters are controversial because they are a more expensive way to buy energy and can push people deeper into debt. If you can’t afford to top up, you can be left without heating.
Mum-of-three Hannah from Cambridgeshire said the family woke up one morning to find the heating had been cut off after they’d been moved on to pre-pay mode "without any notice".
“I have three very young children, my youngest being 10 months old. We can’t afford to get a Christmas tree, let alone all the presents that go underneath. We wake up to our heating cut off, sometimes can’t even plan to make tea after school as the gas cooker won’t work,” Hannah told ITV News.
“It’s absolutely disgusting, we can’t go food shopping as some evenings we won’t have the gas, let alone thinking of what we are going to do at Christmas,” she said.
Citizens Advice want a ban on forced switches this winter after being inundated with calls
Citizens Advice has warned that half a million people are being forced on to more expensive pre-payment meters this winter, and it expected 180,000 to be made as automatic remote switches via a smart meter. Pre-pay costs can be as much as 10% higher – with households paying an estimated £258 a year more than direct debit customers.
Rosi Avis from Citizens Advice Manchester told ITV News: “We’ve seen more people struggling to top up this year than in the six previous years combined. That just shows how many families can’t afford to keep the heating on.”
The charity is calling on the government to bring in a winter ban on energy suppliers shifting people onto pre-payment meters and further targeted support to help those on the lowest incomes.
Average energy debts of those supported by the organisation are £1460, while its research suggests that 65% of people being moved onto pre-payment meters are disabled or have a long-term health condition, while 40% are single people with children.
Under current rules energy companies can push someone onto a pre-payment meter when they can’t pay their bills or are in energy debt, but first they should assess your vulnerability and make sure you won’t be left without power. Those protocols aren’t always followed.
Geraldine O’Connor, who is 66 and suffers with severe epilepsy, was confronted by debt collectors at her door in Sheffield.
“I just went round the corner for some milk, came back and there were these three big guys standing outside, and they said if you hadn’t answered then we have a warrant and a right to break the lock, break into your home, and install a pre-payment meter. I was terrified,” she said.
“We’ve got to stop these mass warrants to install pre-payment metres, it’s going on all over the country, and it’s cruel. Especially if you’ve got disabled people who have mental health problems.”
Ms O’Connor claims disability benefits and says she should never have been put in this position due to her vulnerability.
The regulator Ofgem recently wrote to all suppliers to ask them to stop the process of remotely switching customers onto pre-payment meters, while 17 of the largest energy suppliers were warned that they need to do more to help vulnerable customers.
Energy UK, which represents the industry, told ITV News that installing a pre-payment meter by warrant is a last resort after all other options had been "exhausted".
A spokesperson said: “Pre-payment meters have been a way of helping customers monitor and budget for their energy usage. There are difficult decisions around indebted customers as suppliers are also required to try and prevent them falling further into arrears and given that any increase in bad debt will ultimately have to be recouped from customers’ bills.”
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