UK charities are warning people of the severe consequences of not paying their energy bills, as a campaign to stop payments from October gains momentum.
The Don’t Pay UK group, which is demanding a reduction of bills to an affordable level, has reportedly gathered support from 80,000 people who intend to cancel their direct debit payments from 1 October, when the regulator raises the energy price cap, the maximum amount suppliers are allowed to charge.
Analysts are forecasting that the average household bill will jump above £3,300 a year, from £1,971 in April.
The group says it will only take action if one million people sign up to its “mass non-payment strike of energy bills”.
Britain is facing its biggest cost of living crisis in decades as energy and food bills soar. Citizens Advice said the scale of the problem was significant and it had supported more people who were unable to top up their prepayment meter in June than it had in January 2022. It added that a record number of its service users lacked the funds to turn on their fridge or heat their hob to cook a meal.
Gas and electricity bills are classed as priority bills, which means there can be severe consequences for missing or being late on a payment, said the charity Stepchange. If people don’t pay them, their supplier can collect the debt using a debt collection agency. They can also get a court warrant to enter people’s homes to fit a prepayment card meter.
“Any arrears will be added to the meter and a set amount will be deducted each week. This means you must pay the arrears at a set weekly amount or lose the supply. Your supplier can also remove the meter and cut off your supply, but fortunately this is incredibly rare,” said Richard Lane, director of external affairs at Stepchange.
“If you’ve fallen behind with your household bills, and are worried about how you will pay, it’s important not to wait to get help. Contact your supplier to let them know you’re struggling, they may be able to offer support and inform you about any available grants to pay off a utility bill, or negotiate an affordable payment plan.”
Citizens Advice said there were some safeguards for customers, but they were still vulnerable to higher charges after a refusal to pay.
“Your supplier can’t make you move to prepayment if it wouldn’t be safe or practical; for instance, if an illness or disability means you’d be at risk if your gas or electricity was cut off. Your supplier also needs to follow clear guidance and make sure they’ve given you notice, given you time to pay any debts and offered you alternatives to being moved on to a prepayment meter.”
The charity said if customers fail to strike an agreement with a supplier to pay off an energy debt, the supplier can apply to a court for a warrant to enter their home to disconnect their supply.
The charity urged people to contact their supplier to try to come to an agreement to clear their debt before a hearing takes place.
If people have owed money to their energy supplier for a while, the energy company might pass their debt over to a debt collection agency.
Debt collectors, unlike bailiffs, don’t have any legal powers but they are specialists at recovering debts. If this happens, Citizens Advice urges people to contact their supplier or get advice from a third party including its own advisers.
“If you don’t repay your debt, then additional interest can be added to the amount that you owe,” it said.
If customers continue to not pay their bills, the energy supplier can take them to court to get a county court judgment. If the supplier is successful in court, it can ask a bailiff to call at a customer’s home to collect the debt. A bailiff, however, cannot force entry to a customer’s home.