More than 100,000 people have pledged to cancel their direct debit payments for gas and electricity from October in protest against rocketing energy prices, but charities are warning that such actions could push people into dangerous levels of debt.
Five people share their views on the Don’t Pay UK campaign, which launched in June, and explain why they will join the protest, or not.
‘I just don’t have the money’
Kayleigh, a hotel housekeeper from Milton Keynes, has signed up to the campaign in the hope that collective consumer action will force energy providers to lower people’s bills.
“I’m a working single mother of four. Back in January, I was forced to go on a variable tariff as I could not afford the new fixed rate Ovo were offering me. In April, my monthly bill shot up from £100 to £167. That’s already £802 more a year, and it will increase again in October. I simply won’t be able to pay it.
“So far, I have only been able to not go into debt because my energy account was in credit, but the winter will obviously eat that up. I will cancel my direct debit. I’d rather be in the scary position of not paying my bill than being unable to buy food and other necessities this winter.”
Kayleigh will put as much money as she can aside while her direct debit is suspended so that she will have money saved up to pay when she “absolutely must”.
“But I know my consumer rights. It would take a long time for a bailiff to come in, and I think that if enough people do it, it’ll cost the energy companies too much. I hope such action would result in lower bills for people. Friends have said they are going to do the same.”
‘The fact I can pay these amounts doesn’t make it right to charge this much’
Steven Johnson, a builder from the north-west of England with his own business, is also signed up to Don’t Pay UK. The 64-year-old says nothing will deter him, although he plans to settle any outstanding energy charges “just before it reaches court action”.
“My main concern is, apart from people not being able to put the heating on, that small businesses could collapse over soaring energy prices. It’s a very real risk.
“People are doing this to try to tell the government they need help. I can afford the price rises, but I can also afford to pay £10 for a pint of beer, but I’m not going to pay that because it’s wrong to charge that much for a beer. I’ve signed up out of principle.
“I’m doing it, 100%.”
‘I’ll only stop paying if enough people do the same’
Simon, 55, a mature student from Scotland, has pledged his support for the campaign but is undecided whether he’ll actually follow through over concerns that it may not gain enough traction.
“It’ll only work if it’s a mass-scale rebellion,” he says. “If only a few people do it, they’ll get hammered by the companies.”
Like others, he is potentially planning to cancel his direct debit, but wants to pay eventually, and is not prepared to damage his credit score. Behind all this, he says, is his belief that utility companies should be nationalised.
“I accept that any government would be in an exceptionally difficult position, without easy solutions. But I’m currently £750 in credit with my energy provider, which benefits their cashflow and bankrolls their operations, while it’s a huge burden for me to keep these payments up.
“The government must make sure that the most vulnerable people are looked after, that’s their job.”
‘I can’t support a campaign encouraging vulnerable people to get into debt’
Caitlin Robinson, an academic fellow at the University of Bristol specialising in fuel poverty, empathises with people who want to stop their monthly payments because they can’t afford them, but has concerns about the campaign.
“While I believe in the power of collective action that underpins Don’t Pay UK, I can’t support a campaign that encourages people to get into debt with their energy supplier,” she says.
“As charities have warned this week, the consequences of going into debt can be severe. Suppliers can use debt collection agencies to secure a warrant to enter a person’s home and install a prepayment meter that will be debited with the outstanding debt.”
Robinson concedes that some people who plan to participate in Don’t Pay UK have told her that they understand the implications of what they are doing.
“Perhaps that is fair enough. But what about those households who are already struggling to pay their bills, at risk of energy debt, or already in debt? The campaign makes it sound as easy as boycotting an energy bill, but I worry it will only make the situation worse.
“We should instead divert our collective efforts into putting even greater pressure on the government to provide support for those who can’t pay, and the long-term investment in energy efficiency and low carbon alternatives we so desperately need.”
‘I won’t pay a thing until a fairer solution is found’
Amy, 36, from Old Trafford, Greater Manchester, is unemployed and has made up her mind: she will stop paying her energy bills and is fully prepared to face any possible consequences.
“We need to stop being dictated to by fossil fuel corporations. I will cancel all payments until the matters are resolved fairly and realistically. For society,” she says.
She believes warnings about damaged credit scores and debt collections are “fear mongering”, adding: “The politics of credit scoring is oppressive too. So I am refusing to be fearful of it all. And I live in hope that there will be far fairer leniencies regarding this horrendous situation.”
Many who will participate, she says, will be in a situation where they have no other choice. “We’re just trying to survive this crisis.”