THE number of customers with prepayment energy meters who've been cut off as they can't afford to top up has ballooned by 220%.
More than 6,000 homes with a prepayment meter were forced to ask Citizens Advice for help in just three months.
Between January and March this year, the consumer advice site saw 6,614 pre-pay customers seek help.
Last year there were just 2,067 cases during the same period.
It comes as campaign group Debt Justice revealed pre-pay energy users are now collectively more than £1billion in debt.
'I can't afford to use my stairlift'
Junnie Braithwaite is 56 and lives in northeast London.
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She has fibromyalgia and arthritis, leaving her dependent on her stairlift to move around her two-floor socially rented flat.
"Due to rising energy prices and £600 of energy debt I can no longer afford to operate my stairlift," she says.
“This debt is based on an estimation as I am unable to read my meter.
Junnie says her supplier E.ON hasn’t sent anyone to read the meter for years and the firm is now pressuring her to go on to pre-pay.
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“I have been forced into unpayable debt because of my situation and it has left me feeling suicidal,” she said.
An E.ON spokesperson said: “We cannot comment on the specifics of this complaint as we don’t have the customer’s permission to do so.
“We know these are difficult times and we continue to urge any customer who is struggling to get in touch as there are ways we can help, including our E.ON Next Energy Fund.
"The support we offer is tailored to our individual customers’ needs and changing circumstances so our key message remains – if you are struggling, please speak to us."
Energy crisis far from over
The fallout from record energy prices and huge buildup of debt could impact millions of households for years to come, warned Joe Cox, senior policy officer at Debt Justice.
He said: "We need to pause energy debt enforcement, write down the unpayable debt and reform the energy system to ensure everyone has access to the energy they need.”
In 2022, Citizens Advice saw more people who couldn't top up their prepayment meter than in the whole of the last 10 years combined.
Pre-pay energy users currently take an average of four and a half years to pay off electricity debt and four years to pay off gas debt, according to Debt Justice.
Energy debt repayments are deducted from credit and can force households to go without the energy they need for heating, cooking or operating medical equipment.
"For prepay users, debt repayments speed up disconnection, exposing them to the deadly effects of cold and damp homes," Cox added.
More government help is needed
Earlier this year, the government banned energy companies from getting court orders allowing them to break into people's homes to force fit a prepayment meter.
Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps told The Sun: "No one should be left to sit in a cold, dark home.
"Because of the action I’ve taken suppliers are no longer force-fitting prepayment meters in vulnerable homes.
“We’re also helping households right across the country, having stepped in to cover around half a typical energy bill this winter.
"And this summer, we’re scrapping extra costs for those on prepayment meters – helping over four million families.”
Charity Age UK is calling for more. It wants an amnesty for all customers using a prepayment meter, so they are offered the opportunity to pay by their preferred method instead.
Government funded debt write-off schemes and a targeted discount energy tariff are also key to addressing the longer-term consequences of unmanageable debt, according to the charity.
What are your rights?
Gareth Kloet of Go Compare said the soaring number of people struggling to keep prepayment meters topped up is "very concerning".
He said: “If your supplier is offering to fit one, do not just agree to it.
"If you do move onto a prepayment meter, suppliers should agree a payment plan that is affordable and suitable for you.
"If it’s not, get back in touch with your supplier to recalculate the repayment plan again.
"Don’t allow the debt to increase and possibly get cut off, speak to your supplier immediately."
Age UK estimates that at least 600,000 older households rely on prepayment meters.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said thousands of older people forgo the use of lights, boilers, and appliances each year because they don't have the money to top up their meter.
Anyone struggling should first talk to their supplier and if more help is needed, Age UK can help assess your eligibility for affordability schemes, welfare benefits, and household insulation measures.
How to get help
Sarah Coles, personal finance expert at Hargreaves Lansdown, reveals five ways to get help if you're struggling.
Ask for emergency credit if you can’t afford to top up
If you’re about to run out of credit, you can usually get an emergency top-up from your supplier of either £5 or £10.
They’ll tell you how it works on your particular meter.
This will be repaid the next time you top up, when your standing charge will be added on too, so you need to be prepared for this or it’ll come as a nasty surprise.
Get ‘friendly’ credit if you run out when the shops are closed
Each supplier counts the times differently, but it’s generally between 6pm and 9pm Monday to Saturday and on Sunday.
If you run out at this point, you won’t be cut off, and you can keep using it.
The cost will come off your next top up though.
Additional support credit for people who can’t afford to top up
The suppliers all work differently, so you’ll need to get in touch to check their rules.
Generally, to qualify, you’ll need to be considered vulnerable – which will include older people and those with disabilities.
Your supplier will calculate how much extra credit you qualify for, and will design a repayment plan.
Big energy companies have hardship funds for their customers, and British Gas has a charitable trust that anyone can access if they’re in debt and struggling to repay it.
The processes differ but are fairly involved, and you will usually need to have spoken to a debt adviser before you start.
However, if you qualify they offer free grants.
Cost of living payments
If you are on a low income and receive specific benefits, you may be entitled to the payments.
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This includes £301 for most people on benefits paid from 25 April to 17 May, £301 for most people on tax credits between 2 and 9 May – then another £300 in the autumn and £299 in spring next year.
There will also be £150 during the summer for people on specific disability benefits and an extra £150 or £300 for those receiving Winter Fuel Payments next winter.
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