Prepayment meters: a shocking charge on the working class

Charlie Norton warns of the exploitations of prepayment meters by reflecting on experience
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Anyone who is unfortunate enough to have lived with a prepayment meter will only be too familiar with the points I have raised in this article. 

For those unfamiliar, a prepayment meter requires frequent topping up, monitoring, and higher energy costs. Should you be unable to keep up payments then the prepayment meter will cut off your supply with the swift action of an electromagnet.  

Prepayment meters are usually fitted as a last resort by the energy provider if someone has been unable to keep up with their bills on a credit meter. According to a Citizens Advice Bureau report from 2013, only 23% of people who have prepayment meters had them installed due to fuel debt. Over half however inherited the prepayment meter from the previous inhabitant. 

It is more often than not members of the working class who have been struggling that will be cursed with one of these beige bastards. 

Many people object to having a prepayment meter, but even when they fit the criteria for an objection, it is often overruled. There may be a court warrant to install the meter, and if so, they can install the meter even if you are not at home!

My dad, amidst his depression, was not opening his mail or keeping on top of his bills and had not seen the final warnings or threats of installation of payment meters. So, we were alarmed to see that our home had clearly been unlocked and trespassed when we were not home by someone we did not know. Our cupboard had been rummaged through and a prepayment meter and a leaflet were left. 

High energy consumption appliances such as our electric shower were often what would cause our meter to ‘run out’. I can’t count how many times the lights would cut out and the shower would stop midway through washing, and to then have to walk 15 minutes to the nearest shop offering PayPoint. Often, we would lose the key and spend the next hour in the dark scrabbling for the plastic fob of misery. Some nights we would search the sofa, the car, under the rugs for coins to scrape enough cash to get electricity for the evening. Sometimes the ‘key’ would fail to read at the shop, creating an embarrassing queue behind you as you attempt to top up a mere £5-£10 on the meter during tougher times. You may then be denied service and have to find another store to attempt to top it up, costing you more if you had to drive there. On weekends my brother with learning difficulties and Autism would come home. Part of his routine would be to watch his DVDs in his room. Sometimes the prepayment meter would cut out midway through his viewing and distress him. He didn’t understand why the power went out and we were unable to explain it to him. 

Some may wonder why we would run out so often and not just top it up in large sums like you do when you pay a credit meter. However, times were more often than not, tough, and there wasn’t always £50 to hand to stick on the meter. In fact, I was discussing with my dad only a week ago that I’m not sure how we would have managed these tough times, and the prepayment meters, if the cost of living crisis we are currently experiencing had struck 10 years earlier. But for many, right now is an exceptionally tough time and they are having to deal with the cost of living crisis on top of their existing struggles, only to be made even more difficult with a prepayment meter. 

In February 2022, Ofgem announced a large increase to energy bills, with the price hike affecting prepayment meter customers the most. The price cap was raised by a whopping 54%, meaning that prepayment customers’ price cap will now be £2,017, an increase of £708. Default tariff customers are also seeing an extortionate price hike of £693. It is important to know that this is not a cap on how much you pay for your energy, this cap is only relating to the standing charges and unit rates on the key meter, meaning there is no cap on how much you will pay for your energy based on usage. 

In 2018, the Citizens Advice Bureau reported that 140,000 households could not afford to top up their prepayment meter, so the effects of this price hike are sure to be a devastating blow to the working class and poor of Britain. Of the 140,000 households that were unable to pay for energy, 50% had a habitant with a mental health condition, 33% contained a young child, and 87% were in receipt of benefits. This clearly shows how the most vulnerable in our country are being impacted by the rising cost of energy. I am reminded of Elaine Morrall, who in 2017 was found deceased in her freezing flat wearing a coat and scarf after having her benefits cut. The morally bankrupt benefits system is intrinsically linked to the substandard living conditions of those affected by the rising energy costs. Fuel Poverty Action has reported that before the pandemic and the energy cost increases, around 10,000 people died each winter in freezing homes. We can only assume this figure will increase in the coming years unless change is enacted, and quickly.

The research conducted by the Citizens Advice Bureau also discovered that 65% of all households with a prepayment meter have either a child or someone with a long-term health condition as habitants. For the households that have been forced to self-disconnect this statistic is even higher, with 72% of these households having one of these groups as habitants. For those who have had to self-disconnect, the toll on their health and wellbeing has been substantial. 59% said they were left in cold homes, 43% said they were left without lights, 35% said they were unable to wash, and 17% said they felt ashamed and embarrassed. The ones who should be embarrassed are the energy companies hoarding profits and the government for leaving vulnerable people to suffer, not regular people trying to survive! 

Prepayment meters are a tool used to keep the working class and poor pacified and struggling. As long as energy companies are allowed to raise price caps and increase unit rates, the vulnerable people of this country will continue to suffer.

If you need support in the wake of rising energy costs, the following links may be helpful for you:

Advice to stop your energy supplier moving to a prepayment meter – https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer/energy/energy-supply/get-help-paying-your-bills/stop-your-energy-supplier-installing-a-prepayment-meter/

Help paying energy bills – https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer/energy/energy-supply/get-help-paying-your-bills/grants-and-benefits-to-help-you-pay-your-energy-bills/

Energy advice and support webchat – https://www.nea.org.uk/

Charlie Norton

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