'Self-disconnection' and the invisibility of poverty

By Bernadette Meaden
January 4, 2018

If a winter storm leaves a community in the UK without electricity it makes the national news, and we get frequent updates until supplies are restored. Yet large numbers of people in the UK now regularly go without electricity and it isn’t a news story, because the cause is not weather-related but political and economic.

Around six million households in the UK buy their energy through prepayment meters. Energy bought this way is generally more expensive, so one might wonder why so many households use them. Some people on low incomes, giving the lie to the ‘poor people are bad at budgeting’ trope, say they prefer a prepayment meter as it prevents them from getting into debt: “I wouldn’t be able to resist putting the heating on or having a bath if I had a normal meter”.

In many cases though, it is not a matter of choice. It may be inherited from a previous occupant, or in rented housing it may be the landlord’s decision. And in some cases, when people have got into debt with their energy provider, a prepayment meter can be forcibly installed, using a warrant. In recent years the numbers of these forced installations of prepayment meters (PPMs) rose dramatically, leading to an investigation by Ofgem, the energy regulator. 

Ofgem found, ‘failures to identify vulnerability during the warrant application and execution process, resulting in some consumers in vulnerable situations suffering traumatic experiences.’ It was also concerned that in charging customers warrant-related costs, suppliers were ‘in some cases, levying excessively high charges’. 

As a result, new rules around the ‘force-fitting’ of PPMs are about to come into effect, on 8 January 2018. The Ofgem document announcing this decision, and detailing the consultation process before the decision was arrived at, is quite an eye-opener. For instance, there will now be a prohibition on forced installation “where it would be severely traumatic due to the customer’s mental capacity and/or psychological state”. Two energy suppliers agreed that this was appropriate – but remarkably, four energy suppliers and a trade body disagreed.

So the rules on the installation of a prepayment meter by warrant are about to become more humane, which is good. But for people in poverty, prepayment meters can effectively block their access to energy.

Customers who buy their energy through a conventional meter are called credit customers, because they use energy first and pay for it later. If they get behind with their bill, they still have access to energy. And even as their debt builds up, there are rules about which customers can be disconnected from the supply, and when.

Citizens Advice says, "Suppliers aren’t allowed to disconnect you between 1 October and 31 March if you’re: a pensioner living alone, or a pensioner living with children under five. The six largest suppliers have also signed up to an agreement to make sure you won’t be disconnected at any time of year if you have: a disability, long-term health problems, severe financial problems, young children living at home.” So, many credit customers have protection from being disconnected. In fact, domestic disconnections due to debt are now almost unheard of, replaced by the installation of prepayment meters. 

People with a prepayment meter, on the other hand, must pay before they get their energy, and if they haven’t got the money to top-up their meter, simply go without. This is termed ‘self-disconnection’. The supplier doesn’t disconnect you, you disconnect yourself, though not through choice.

Citizens Advice (CAB) did some research on ‘self-disconnection’ and found that, “PPM consumers who are self-disconnecting also have other, significant problems and cannot afford many essentials, such as food.” This was why foodbanks started supplying ‘cold boxes’ for people who not only had no food, but no fuel to heat it with.

The CAB report  'Topping-up or dropping-out: self-disconnection among prepayment meter users' was published in 2014, when welfare ‘reforms’ like increased benefit sanctions and the bedroom tax were starting to bite, but Universal Credit was only just being piloted. Citizens Advice said that, no matter how helpful some energy suppliers were being, “the energy market cannot address the issue of poverty, and it is a matter for Government to decide whether the supply of energy as an essential commodity will continue to be supported.”

With full service Universal Credit now rolling out, and increased foodbank use following close on its heels, there must surely be many more people ‘self-disconnecting’ from their energy supply.  What this means to people’s physical and mental wellbeing should be clear to anyone with any imagination. Not just living in a cold, dark house, but unable to have hot food or even a cup of tea, and unable to wash one’s body or clothes in hot water. It is a miserable existence which, coupled with lack of food, can lead to a rapid decline in physical and mental health.  

Looking to the future, when smart meters will be installed in an increasing numbers of homes, CAB says  “a single smart meter can be switched easily between prepayment and credit modes - this should make prepayment as cheap or cheaper than even the lowest credit tariffs”. However, this may be an optimistic view. For those who have enough money, smart meters could certainly make prepayment easier, more convenient, and possibly cheaper. But Ofgem says, “Smart meters can operate in both credit and PPM mode, removing the need to access people’s homes and physically change their meter when they move between credit and PPM tariffs". Smart meters could herald cheaper electricity - but could they also give energy suppliers the ability to easily switch even more struggling customers onto pre-payment, meaning more ‘self-disconnection’?

Meanwhile, it seems that we have arrived at a point where large numbers of people are going without electricity or gas on a regular basis, but because they are suffering as isolated households, due to poverty, instead of as whole communities, due to the weather, it doesn’t make the news. Like hunger, this deprivation is becoming just another feature of our increasingly harsh society.

I have deliberately not used the term ‘fuel poverty’. People who are on such low incomes they ‘self-disconnect’ are living in poverty and deprivation that pervades their whole life. It would be inaccurate to suggest that it is limited to one area.

If you or somebody you know is struggling to pay for energy, contact Citizens Advice. There are schemes and grants available which may help. https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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