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Harrowing plight of Britain’s prepayment energy users left sitting in the dark

As Britain’s household energy bills continue to soar, mother-of-three Leah Shields faces an excruciating choice. She has to decide whether she can afford to go outside.

“I’m disabled and I use a power chair when I go out of the house,” said the 38-year-old former hairdresser, who no longer works due to multiple health conditions, including osteoporosis.

“Some days I’m having to sit and think: well, we need the electricity because we have two small children. When it comes to powering my power chair, I have to decide if it’s worth charging it, or do I save the electricity for my kids so it doesn’t go off.”

Leah’s is one of 4.5mn households in the UK with a prepayment meter, meaning she has to pay in advance for any energy she consumes, as well as paying a higher unit price. If she can’t afford to top up, it literally means lights out. Plus, in her case, being confined to the house.

Leah Shields powers up her wheelchair © Ian Forsyth/FT

The cost of electricity and gas will jump again in October with the next energy price cap increase coinciding with peak winter usage, meaning it will cost the average prepayment customer more than £350 a month to heat and power their homes.

Energy bosses have predicted that by this autumn, as many as four in 10 households could be in fuel poverty, spending more than 10 per cent of their disposable income on energy bills.

Leah and her family, who live in Darlington, in the north east of England, use Bread and Butter Thing, a local food charity, to top up their store cupboards. But when it comes to energy, they have to choose. Leah has had no gas, which runs her heating, for three weeks, prioritising electricity instead.

She had, until recently, been putting £20 on to the meter every Monday. “Now it’s at least £40 a week and we top it up on Monday and Thursday or Friday. We did try to pay quarterly and it was just a no go. The bills would come in and we’d have difficulty paying it back off.”

For those on low incomes, soaring energy bills either mean extreme energy rationing or living for extended periods of time without gas or electricity.

Before the energy crisis, Citizens Advice estimated 400,000 people in the UK were regularly “self disconnecting” — the industry term for living without energy — a figure it accepted would be significantly higher today.

During the past year, the charity’s helpline has recorded a 684 per cent increase in calls from people who cannot afford to top up their prepayment meters. Currently it is taking 45 such calls a day.

Fay Atkinson, 46, is one of those getting help from the CAB. Living in draughty social housing in the town of Clayton-le-Moors, in the north west of England, she confines herself to one room as far as she can and tries to stop up the gaps under the doors with tea towels.

“I’m living hand to mouth,” she said. “£5 on the meter would last me two and a half days, now it’s lasting me a day. I live in one room and only turn the lights on if I’ve got to go to the bathroom or if I have to go downstairs — the only light I’m getting otherwise is off the TV. If it weren’t for food banks I’d be starving.”

Like Leah, Fay’s health — she had three heart attacks in her late 30s — means she struggles to work. When she does, she earns minimum wage. “So even if I were working I’d still be scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

She said she was “on the brink” of becoming homeless because she can’t afford to pay her rent, adding wryly: “Although I guess gas and electricity wouldn’t be a problem any more.” 

Of the thousands of people like Fay who approach the CAB for help each year, only 9 per cent said they would contact their supplier if they ran out of credit.

“It’s a very private thing to admit you’re struggling and need help,” said Matthew Cole, head of the Fuel Bank Foundation, a charity providing emergency credit and support for people who run out of power. “We’re like a food bank, but for energy.”

Matthew Cole: ‘Nearly two-thirds of the people we’re helping are in work’ © Anna Gordon/FT

Fuel Bank is on course to help a record 210,000 people this financial year; the limit of the charity’s current funding levels. Yet Cole estimated that for every person accessing help in the form of top-up vouchers, four more are in need of it.

“Nearly two-thirds of the people we’re helping are in work,” he said, adding that pensioners make up a large part of the third not working. “In a good month they’ll get to the 25th before they run out, in a bad month it will be the 18th. What scares me is that it’s normalising being in poverty.”

Operating from 500 centres across the UK, Fuel Bank referrals come via the charity’s 175 partners, which include debt charities, local councils and food banks, where anyone asking for a “cold pack” — food that does not need to be cooked — is the trigger. Cole is aware of one food bank in Birkenhead where this applied to 90 per cent of users.

Fuel Bank payment vouchers © Anna Gordon/FT

Many low-income households have been switched on to prepayment meters by their supplier as a debt management tool, so self-disconnection “becomes the customer’s problem, not the energy company’s problem”, said Andy Shaw, a debt advice policy officer with StepChange.

Encountering families living without power is not uncommon in debt advice, but he added: “It’s having these conversations in the summer that’s really unusual.”

Charities said the families they are helping are among the least likely to have received the £150 council tax rebate that the government had promised earlier this year would arrive in April, as so few of them pay via direct debit. Instead, they must wait until their local council designs a way for them to apply for the cash, which could mean waiting till September.

Cole welcomed the government’s £15bn aid package announced last month but feared it would will not be enough for the poorest. “People will die of the cold this winter” was his stark assessment.

“Most kids are praying for a white Christmas because they want to play in the snow. You won’t get that with a family in fuel poverty — they’ll be praying for a mild winter.”

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