NO ONE SHOULD BE LEFT COLD OR IN THE DARK BECAUSE THEY CANNOT AFFORD THEIR BILLS, IN THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS OR ITS AFTERMATH.
It is very good news that the government and energy companies have agreed to support people “most in need” in these difficult times. However, as things stand there is a real risk that many people will never get the help they are entitled to — and desperately need.
For people normally out at work who are now home all the time, energy costs will go up. Meanwhile, they may lose their main income. Already many people ration their gas and electricity tightly. How can we afford to pay more? Older and disabled people, worst hit by the virus, are even more at risk in cold, damp homes. Already over 9,000 people a year, mostly elderly, die from fuel poverty.
The agreement made by the government and suppliers promises that disconnections will be suspended and that customers struggling to pay can contact their supplier for help. It is encouraging that this agreement has been reached. Gas, power, and heat are essential services, and should no more be cut off than our water supply.
But the agreement doesn’t make clear if unaffordable payments will be waived, or just postponed. In these exceptionally uncertain times, who can take on more debt? It is essential to have clarity over what exactly customers can expect. People need to know that they can use the energy they need, without racking up debt for the future.
Moreover, the government’s agreement with suppliers makes customers responsible for negotiating with their supplier for the help they need. How will people be able to get the support when they need it at a time when Customer Services could easily be overwhelmed? Will we be able to cope with this process if we or our family are ill? Or if we have problems with English or computers? Can we count on a response from suppliers that actually meets our needs? Will we be asked for evidence of “financial distress” that we cannot provide? And will people even know that this support is available?
We urge the government and suppliers to:
- Provide free credit to all prepayment meter users, promptly, so that they are not left in the cold while trying to negotiate with suppliers. It’s great that the agreement mentions sending pre-loaded keys and cards — but payment for these should be reduced to what people can afford.
- Guarantee that customers in financial distress, including those self-isolating and/or being laid off or losing customers at the present time, will also have bills reduced to what they can afford — and not just deferred.
- Stop forced imposition of prepayment meters, including imposition remotely when people on smart meters fall behind on bills. Imposing prepayment will lead to more “self-disconnections” as people cannot pay.
- Announce a moratorium on debt repayments while so many people are in crisis.
- Prominently publicise the support on offer, in government bulletins and TV advertisements, making clear that people do not need to go without the heating and electricity they need.
- Ensure people can access this help quickly, without showing entitlement to benefits.
- Ensure that suppliers allocate sufficient staff, that there are clear, published guidelines, an advertised free helpline and online interaction, and a positive approach to offering support without obstacles, so that promises are borne out in practice.
- Offer cash grants for off-grid customers who need them.
- Restore services to anyone who has been disconnected.