Three million people across Britain ran out of credit on their prepayment energy meter last year, the equivalent of one every 10 seconds, Citizens Advice has said.
The service said it has seen more people unable to afford to top up their energy accounts in 2022 than in the entire last 10 years combined. This has broken the charity’s predictions for the number of households it would help as the cost of living crisis took hold.
More than two million people were being disconnected at least once a month and 19% of those cut off in the past year then spent at least 24 hours without gas or electricity, leaving them unable to turn the heating on or cook a hot meal.
The consumer watchdog said it had heard from people forced on to a prepayment meter and left unable to top up even though their medication needed to be refrigerated.
A single parent with a young baby was left in the cold and dark for 48 hours after her supplier switched her to a meter.
Citizens Advice said it was particularly concerned about disabled people and those living with long-term health conditions.
Almost one in five households (18%) went on to spend two days or more without energy supply.
The UK’s energy regulator stipulates that groups, including disabled people and those living with long-term health conditions, should not be forced onto a prepayment meter, due to the risk of disconnections.
In October, Ofgem warned suppliers that not enough was being done to identify customers in vulnerable circumstances before installing a prepayment meter.
The following month, more than a third of prepayment meter households – including vulnerable groups – were cut off from their energy supply at least once.
A ban on prepayment installations
The charity is now calling for a total ban on forced prepayment meter installations until new protections are introduced, ensuring households can no longer be fully cut off from gas and electricity.
Based on Ofgem figures, Citizens Advice estimated that 600,000 people were forced on to a prepayment meter because they could not afford their energy bills in 2022.
The organisation predicts a further 160,000 people could be moved onto a prepayment meter by the end of winter.
Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty said: “All too often the people finding it hardest to pay their bills are being forced onto a prepayment meter they can’t afford to top up. This puts them at real risk of being left in cold, damp and dark homes.
“The staggering rise in the cost of living means many simply cannot afford to heat and power their homes to safe levels.
“New protections are needed to stop people being fully cut off from gas and electricity. Until then, there must be a total ban on energy companies forcing those already at breaking point onto prepayment meters. If Ofgem doesn’t act, the Government must intervene.”
Relying on credit to survive the crisis
Separately, data from the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) has found more than 12 million people are now borrowing money for food or essential bills and half of them are doing so for the first time in their lives.
The poll of 2,180 UK adults suggests that 23% have relied on credit or money from family and friends to buy food in the last three months, and the same percentage have done so for electricity and gas.
It also revealed that 21% think they will need credit to get through the next three months, with 4% of them saying they definitely would.
MaPS chief executive Caroline Siarkiewicz said: “Relying on credit or the generosity of family and friends to put food on the table, heat your home and keep a roof over your head can be a constant source of stress. For millions of UK households, it’s also a daily reality.
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“If you’re already struggling, or you’re worried things are heading that way, it can feel like there’s no way forward. However, the first step to solving money problems is knowing where to turn.
“You can turn to us, free, in confidence and at any time, so I’d urge you to contact us for money guidance as soon as you think you need it.”