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Tens of thousands of poorer households in Britain are often left without light and heating because they cannot afford to top up pre-payment energy meters, prompting urgent calls for the UK Government to act and help alleviate their suffering.

Damning new research from Citizens Advice reveals that 140,000 households, equal to around 400,000 people, have been left without gas or electricity because they don’t have enough money to top up their pre-payment meter (PPM).

Of the 140,000 households who have self-disconnected, around 120,000 include vulnerable people like children and those with long-term heath conditions, leading to concerns about the potential health effects of living in cold and dark homes.

While some energy suppliers offer access to discretionary credit, Citizens Advice says more needs to be done to ensure people are aware of the support that is available.

According to the charity, 65 per cent of all PPM households have a child or someone with a long-term health condition living there. Among those forced to self-disconnect due to not being able to afford to top up their PPM, 72 per cent had a child or person with a long-term heath conditions living there.

Half of those surveyed by Citizens Advice said that self-disconnection had impacted on their physical and emotional well-being, 59 per cent said they were left in cold homes, 43 per cent said they were left without lights, 35 per cent said they weren’t able to wash, and 17 per cent said they felt ashamed or embarrassed.

“That’s really stressful if you run out of electric. Imagine, if you put yourself in your home and you’ve got no electric and you’ve got no gas so you’ve got no heating”, said Tom (not his real name).

“You’ve got no entertainment, there’s nothing to do. You’re just sitting there waiting for the next day to come or until you can contact somebody. You feel depressed, you feel anxious, feel annoyed – all sorts of emotions.”

Overall, the charity’s research found that 1.9m people living in homes with a PPM have found themselves without gas or electricity due to not having sufficient funds on their meters.

Citizens Advice has called on the UK Government to introduce measures to reduce the impact of self-disconnection on vulnerable customers.

These measures should include (as quoted):

  • Energy suppliers should review whether they have suitable systems in place to identify whether a household is at risk of harm from self-disconnection before a prepayment meter is installed, or where an existing prepayment meter customer has reported they have difficulty topping up their meter.
  • Energy suppliers should put in place systems and processes to ensure that where vulnerable people are put onto prepayment meters that they are not left without supply.
  • DWP and Jobcentres should explore ways to improve coordination with suppliers to ensure vulnerable customers are given help to prevent self-disconnection.
  • Energy UK should use its upcoming Commission on Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances to conduct a review of the support available to vulnerable energy customers who ask for support when they’ve self-disconnected.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “It’s unacceptable that so many vulnerable households are being left without heat and light.

“For some people self-disconnection is easily managed, but for many others it is an extremely stressful experience that can have harmful physical and emotional effects.

“While some suppliers are now offering support to prepayment meter customers, industry and the Government need to do more.

“We need better mechanisms to identify vulnerable customers, better coordination between suppliers and government agencies and we need suppliers to ensure that when people’s health is at risk alternative ways to pay are offered.”