By Lauren Howells

One hundred and forty thousand households, equating to around 400,000 people, were left without electricity or gas in December and January because they didn’t have sufficient money to top up their prepayment meter, new research has revealed.

According to the research commissioned by Citizens Advice, out to the 140,000 households which “self-disconnected” because they didn’t have enough money to cover their energy costs, the vast majority (120,000) had people living in them who may be “particularly vulnerable” to not having any heat or power, such as those with a long-term health condition or a child.

The research showed that 50% of the 140,000 households had someone with a mental health condition, 33% contained a young child and 87% were in receipt of benefits.

Only 9% contacted their supplier to discuss the issue

The charity said that it was concerned that only 9% of those who self-disconnected because of money issues contacted their supplier about what was happening.

Citizens Advice pointed out that although many suppliers now offer access to discretionary credit, more had to be done to ensure people were aware of the available support.

Some respondents said they were left in cold homes or unable to wash

Half of all those who were surveyed as part of the research said that self-disconnection had “negative physical and emotional impacts”. Out of these people, over half (59%) said they were left in cold homes and over a third (35%) said that they were unable to wash.

Almost half (43%) said they were left without lights.

Citizens Advice says government and suppliers “must do more”

The charity called on both suppliers and the government to take measures to reduce the impact of self-disconnection on vulnerable customers.

It argued that energy suppliers should be reviewing whether they have suitable systems in place to identify whether a household is at risk of harm from self-disconnection, before installing a prepayment meter or where a prepayment meter customer has reported that they are experiencing difficulties topping up their meter.

Citizens Advice wants systems to be put in place by energy suppliers to ensure that vulnerable people who are put onto prepayment meters are not left without gas or electricity.

It also argued that:

  • 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.

Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, Gillian Guy, said that it was “unacceptable” that so many vulnerable households were being left without any light or heat.

Ms Guy talked about how self-disconnection is, for many, an extremely stressful experience, which could 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,” she added.