As temperatures fell to minus six on Wednesday evening in Glasgow – eight days after 29-year-old Marek ran out of gas and was unable to top-up his meter – he decided he couldn’t take the cold any longer. He packed a bag and went to sleep at a friend’s flat.
His situation is one faced by tens of thousands of the poorest Scots households who went without power for heating, hot water or light in the coldest months of last winter, new figures suggest.
The statistics on prepayment gas and electricity smart meters – obtained under freedom of information legislation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism from energy regulator Ofgem – are from January to March this year.
They suggest more than 13,000 people were left without gas supplies and more than 9,000 without electricity for more than 24 hours. About a third of those self-disconnections – which happen when people are unable to top-up their gas or electricity prepayment meters – were between one and four weeks long.
The Ferret spoke to people like Marek, who said being forced to live in the cold for long periods had a devastating toll on his mental or physical health and made him feel like he had “no future”. Support agencies said some were taking drastic measures to keep warm, using candles or even deep heat gels.
Campaigners claimed the number of vulnerable people unable to top-up is likely to have risen substantially this winter and warned that “shocking figures” could turn into “tragedies” if urgent action was not taken. This week temperatures have dipped as low as minus 16 in Aberdeenshire.
The estimated totals are calculated using Ofgem data for smart prepayment meters, which make up about a quarter of all prepayment meters and are likely to be an underestimate. Figures are not available for the older style top-up meters.
Opposition politicians said it was time to clamp down on energy firms obtaining warrants to force people to install prepayment energy meters as the cost-of-living crisis continues to deepen.
Prepayment gas and electricity
Prepayment meters – which must be topped up on a pay-as-you-go basis – are often fitted in the least affluent homes, including those who have defaulted on direct debit payment. But they are a more expensive way of paying for energy.
A previous investigation by The Ferret found that in the poorest areas up to 69 per cent of people have prepayment meters, while the most affluent neighbourhoods have none.
Daily standing charges must be paid whether or not gas or electricity is used, which means daily costs can quickly rack up and companies can add previous debt from the top-ups. Households who cannot afford to top up their meter risk being disconnected from their power entirely.
Until recently the use of prepayment meters had been decreasing but their use by energy companies has increased dramatically in line with fuel bill hikes .
The new Scottish figures from Ofgem show a nine percent rise in their use between the first and second three months of this year. Almost more than 300,000 Scots now have a gas prepayment meter while almost half a million have one for electricity.
Last month The Ferret spoke to people supported by energy charity South Seeds in Glasgow’s Govanhill as part of an investigation into how face-to-face energy advice can help address fuel poverty and tackle health inequalities. But we found it cannot overcome structural issues.
Those left shivering through these coldest days include Marek, a former cleaner living in the area, who had to give up his job more than a year ago due to depression and anxiety, triggered after his father’s death.
Previously he has relied on emergency fuel vouchers when he has been unable to top-up his meter. But he has now exceeded the limit of three in six months and has been forced to go without heating.
He will not have enough money to top up the meter until his next benefit payment clears on Monday, by which point he will not have had gas for heating for 12 days.
“I can’t pay for everything so I have to make horrible decisions like this [not topping up the meter],” he told The Ferret. “This month I bought a warm jacket so now I can’t afford heating. One month I didn’t have food for three days until I got a food bank voucher.
“At the moment I sit in the library for three or four hours at a time. I have a jacket on all the time in the house and it’s freezing. In the morning it’s like waking up in a fridge.
“It’s not good for my anxiety and depression – I don’t feel like me. I am just thinking about gas, food all the time. What will the future be for me? It’s very hard to stay healthy like this.”
Poppy Ives, South Seeds energy advisor, which has been supporting Marek when possible, said: “Since the cost of electricity and gas has gone up, we have seen an increase in the number of households that are self-disconnecting.
“Some of our clients are trying to keep warm in other ways, such as lighting lots of candles instead of using their central heating. We are worried about the safety of these households [and] about the negative impact self-disconnection may have on both their mental and physical health.”
Edinburgh’s Ripple Project is so concerned about individuals and families in the same position as Marek that it lobbied the National Lottery to allow it to pay for basics like energy and food directly, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.
Rachel Green, the organisation’s director, said: “There have been heard concerns that this is unsustainable but it really makes a difference to these families and it’s what they need.
“These are people who are stuck. We have one old lady who keeps warm using Ralgex [deep heat gel for muscle pain]. It’s a hideous situation. And I refuse to start to normalise the idea of warm banks.”
In Dundee the city council has declared fuel poverty an “emergency”. It has held two crisis summits and provided an additional £3m of support for advice services, fuel grants and food organisations, as well as an activity programme in spaces where people can come together to get warm.
“This support, however, doesn’t touch the sides,” said council leader John Alexander who called the new figures “damning”. “People are becoming increasingly desperate.”
He called for “more significant UK intervention on energy costs” and an increase in council budgets. He added: “This is a crisis of unrivalled significance and it requires an equal and substantial response rather than the sticking plaster approach that we’ve seen up until this point.”
Frazer Scott, chief executive of Energy Action Scotland, said the number of people being forced to self-disconnect from their energy supply for long periods of time was highly likely to be increasing.
“The lowest income households are being penalised for the financial failures of energy companies and are paying the price for it through their bills,” he added.
The campaigning organisation is calling for a “social tariff” for those on the lowest incomes, which would exclude additional costs, such as standing charges – paid regardless of use – and VAT.
He added: “We need to ensure that proper protection exists to ensure people stay on supply and we need to halt the movement to pre-payment meters.”
Scottish Labour’s net zero and energy spokesperson, Colin Smyth MSP, called for Ofgem to collect more comprehensive data to hold energy companies accountable.
He said: “This investigation has captured the scale of the problem and the daily reality for a growing number of fuel-poor, indebted and vulnerable households in Scotland. Too often their plight is hidden because they are deemed to have chosen to disconnect, when the reality is, they have little choice.
He called for better support from the Scottish Government but added: “Ultimately, the UK Government needs to properly clamp down on energy firms obtaining warrants to force people to install prepayment energy meters. If we don’t see action soon from both our governments, these figures will turn into tragedies as we head into winter.”
On 14 November Ofgem wrote to energy suppliers to raise fears about reports that vulnerable people had been left without power. “The cases shared are so concerning, and place consumers at such risk, that we need to write to you to make you aware of the situation and remind you of your obligations,” the letter said.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “This is an incredibly unsettling time for consumers and we continue to do all we can to support households.”
Though energy powers are reserved the Scottish Government continues “ “to advocate for the needs of Scottish consumers, including those at risk of disconnection” and has doubled its fuel insecurity fund to £20m, the spokesperson added.
A spokesperson for the UK Government said it understood it was a “difficult” time for families and has put support in place including the Energy Price Guarantee, £400 payments towards bills and £1,200 for the most vulnerable households.
“Ofgem has introduced licensing conditions and the obligation on suppliers to identify and support self-disconnecting and self-rationing prepayment meter customers,” they added.
Some figures in this story were updated on 17/12 after Ofgem corrected the information it supplied about the total number of prepayment meters in Scotland.
Image thanks to iStock/miriam-doerr