A charity fears the “already worrying” number of people self-disconnecting from pre-payment energy meters could spike amid increasing cost-of-living pressures.
Andy Brown, chief executive of Citizens Advice Manchester, said people must not spend the winter “too scared, too frightened to turn the heating on”.
The charity is predicting that in January – a month where finances are typically tight for many – some pre-payment customers will need to find an estimated £360 a month for their energy or risk being cut off.
He said: “We are concerned that the consequences of enforcement action and, in particular, the imposing of a pre-payment meter to collect energy bill arrears, will lead to a spike in the already worrying rise in the number of people self-disconnecting.
Struggling with debts and don't know what to do?
— Citizens Advice Manchester (@ManchesterCAB) November 3, 2022
“When people on pre-payment meters can’t afford to top up, this doesn’t mean they simply slip into debt.
“For many, they often self-disconnect, impacting on their health, their wellbeing and potentially leading to disrepair for their homes.”
Mr Brown gave the example of a woman who incurred significant transport costs when she travelled from Manchester to London to look after an unwell family member.
On her return, she had nothing with which to top up the pre-payment meter. The freezer was turned off as a result and she lost most of her food.
Citizens Advice helped her with a voucher and a food bank referral.
The charity is calling for benefits to be raised in line with inflation, with its data suggesting that the number of people seeking its support could triple within months if this does not happen.
Mr Brown said the charity is already “breaking unwelcome records”, with the number of people requesting crisis help more than doubling between March and September, and increasing numbers in debt or with negative budgets, where their income does not meet their essential costs.
The charity also wants to see targeted support for those on the lowest incomes, with clearer guidance on what help will be available after April, when the universal energy price guarantee ends.
It is calling for a winter moratorium on all judgments in housing possession or debt cases, including the immediate suspension of applications from energy companies seeking enforcement or instalment of prepayment meters, or disconnection.
This would improve people’s wellbeing, save lives, help the ”already overburdened” court system avoid a “deluge” of claims by creditors, and protect the NHS from an influx of people needing support and care because of the “anxiety being imposed upon them”, he said.
He said: “Such a moratorium will improve the quality of life and wellbeing of the millions most exposed to the impacts of this cost-of-living emergency, and who face the prospect – some for the first time – of going into debt through no fault of their own.”
Mr Brown was speaking at a session on challenges posed by the rising cost of living, held by the National Children and Adult Services Conference in Manchester.
Charlotte Ramsden, strategic director for people at Salford City Council, told the session there is a “huge anxiety” over people using unsafe methods to keep themselves warm.
Greater Manchester fire and rescue service is doing work to keep the public informed about the risks, she said, while 306 warm banks have been set up in places such as community centres and libraries.
Local teams are working to identify people who are reliant on medical equipment at home to keep well, and are looking at how they can support people who see a surge in costs because of this.
Additional hospital transport is being funded, she said, in response to people starting to turn down hospital appointments because they cannot afford to get there.
She added: “People mustn’t feel isolated and they mustn’t feel stigmatised.
“So many people are affected by this – we have to give that sense of we’re in this together.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We understand this is a difficult time for families, which is why we have put in place immediate support including the energy price guarantee, which is saving the typical household around £700, in addition to providing the most vulnerable households with £1,200 each this year on top of the £400 support that households will benefit from.
“We will consider how to support households from April 2023, focusing support on those in need.”