A study by energy watchdog Consumer Focus has revealed that up to 1.4m people are living in homes that have cut off their own energy supply in the last year.
The group is now calling on energy suppliers to transform the experience people who rely on pre-pay meters and prevent them from getting a “second class service”.
Consumer Focus says its survey findings are particularly worrying as almost half of households that disconnect their energy are home to someone with an illness or disability, and two in five are home to children under 16.
Consumer Focus chief executive Mike O’Connor said: “Many customers like pre-payment meters because it gives them control over their budget, even though it means they pay more for their energy.
“Even though some people choose not to top up their meter, we must be concerned that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable consumers are walking a tightrope between topping up their energy to stay warm or buying a decent meal.
“Paying for a service in advance shouldn’t mean getting a second class service. Energy firms could transform the experience of customers by bringing pre-payment meters into the 21st century, making it easier to top-up and avoid being cut-off.”
Almost three in five pre-pay customers who cut off their supply say they have not had enough money to top up. Three quarters of households that disconnect are already cutting back on things like food and leisure or cutting their energy use so they can afford credit. For many, a necessary part of any real solution will be access to decent price support and energy efficiency measures.
Consumer Focus wants energy companies to make it easier for people to top up their energy credit by introducing online, ATM and text message top-up facilities, as well as a pre-pay facility in smart-meters. It also wants suppliers to provide better checks for vulnerable consumers before meters are installed and guarantee that even if people run out of credit, their electricity will not be cut off at night or at the weekend.
The watchdog also wants discounted tariffs to be extended to all pensioners who receive pension credit, families with young children who receive means-tested benefits and all people eligible for Cold Weather Payments. Introducing a pre-pay facility to all smart meters would also reduce the extra £81 pre-pay customers currently pay per year, on average, compared to monthly direct debit customers.