The Greater Manchester people being hit with a £25-a-day ‘nightmare’

Michael Regan is disabled and relies on an electric wheelchair to get around. But he says that didn’t stop an energy company forcing him onto a prepayment meter last year after he and his two housemates fell into around £1,000 of arrears.

Now Michael, 31, says he’s not able to get out as much as he would like as he can’t afford to charge his wheelchair as often. And he’s terrified of the running out of credit and being cut off.

READ MORE: ‘I’m only having one meal a day’: Life on the streets where people dread the day when help with energy bills stops

Michael, who lives in a three bed adapted house in Oldham with two others, said: “We shouldn’t be on a prepayment meter because we have equipment that needs charging. I have an electric hospital bed, I’ve got my wheelchair, but I can’t really afford to charge it at the minute so I’m going out less often.

“At the minute it’s costing us about £25 a day. We’re having to be really sparing with the heating, so we’re using hot water bottles, blankets, wrapping ourselves up in dressing gowns.

“I’m diabetic, so I need to keep an eye on what I eat, but all our money is going on [the prepayment meter] at the minute. We’re basically living on ready meals. It’s a nightmare.”

This week Citizens Advice called for a ban on energy companies ‘forcing’ customers onto prepayment meters because they’re struggling to pay bills. The charity estimates that 3.2 million people in Britain ran out of credit on their meter last year, the equivalent of one every 10 seconds.

More than 152,000 households with smart meters were switched remotely to more costly prepayment meters by their energy supplier last year, according to recent figures from Ofgem. It comes amid rising energy costs as people’s bills skyrocket and the cost of living worsens.

Nikita Fox

Nikita Fox, 29, is a mum to two toddlers and a full-time carer to her partner. She says they were recommended to go onto a prepayment meter by their energy supplier who claimed it would help lower their bills. In fact, she says, the gas and electric bills on their two-bed bungalow in Oldham have since rocketed.

She said: “We’ve put £60 on it over the last two or three days. Luckily the family help us out, because without that there’s no chance we could afford it.

“The money we’re putting on the meter is money we’ve set aside for shopping. We’re having to choose between heating up the house for the kids, or buying food.

“Mentally and physically it’s draining, but I don’t like to let my other half see it getting to me.”

An investigation by news website i also found that debt collecting firms acting on behalf of energy firms obtained nearly 500,000 warrants to enter properties since the last Covid lockdown and that courts are batch processing hundreds of warrant applications in minutes.

Ofgem stipulates that certain groups such as disabled people and those with long-term health conditions should not be forced onto a prepayment meter. But Citizens Advice said it saw more people who were unable to top up their prepayment meter in 2022 than in the whole of the last 10 years combined.

Citizens Advice estimates that 3.2 million people in Britain ran out of credit on their prepayment meter last year
(Image: PA)

Almost one in five households (18%) who ran out of credit last year, went on to spend two days or more without energy supply. 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.

Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty said: “All too often the people finding it hardest to pay their bills are being forced on to 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.”

Dhara Vyas, deputy chief executive of Energy UK which represents the energy suppliers, said: “Suppliers are required to have exhausted all other options before installing a prepayment meter by warrant – only after repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact the customer to discuss repayment options and checks to ensure they do not go ahead when customers are in the most vulnerable situations.

“The energy industry is very aware of the challenges millions of households are facing right now – which means difficult decisions around indebted customers as suppliers are required to try and prevent them falling further into arrears. Any increase in bad debt ultimately ends up costing all consumers more money, as it is recouped from bills.

“Energy suppliers are discussing these concerns with the Government and the regulator, including looking at options to reduce the price that prepayment customers pay.”

A Government spokesman said: “The Government expects energy suppliers to do all they can to help customers who are struggling to pay their bills and suppliers can only install prepayment meters without consent to recover debt as a last resort. The regulator Ofgem requires energy suppliers to offer solutions for customers in, or at risk of, debt or disconnection. This includes offering emergency credit to all prepayment meter customers and additional support credit to customers in vulnerable circumstances.”

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Manchester Evening News – Oldham