I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require energy companies to allow a grace period before disconnecting customers with pre-payment meters who have run out of credit;
to require energy companies to offer debt management support to all customers;
and for connected purposes.
I pay my gas and electricity bills by standing order, and I pay in arrears. If I stop paying those bills, I can be disconnected by my supplier, but it is very much a final step and a last resort. Not so for those who pay in advance—that is, those on prepayment meters. Should they be unable to pay for gas or electricity, disconnection is the first thing that happens to them. The minute they go over the £10 of emergency credit applied to each prepayment meter, their supply stops and they are considered to have self-disconnected. We, as well-paid MPs, could run up hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pounds’ worth of debt to energy companies before they disconnect our supply, while those on prepayment meters will be left to freeze in the dark the minute they owe just £10. It is that iniquity that my Bill seeks to address.
There is more that I could have asked for in the Bill around the broader iniquity of the treatment of those on prepayment meters, but I decided to make it as easy and straightforward as possible. The Bill asks for one thing only: to put an end to those on prepayment meters being treated differently from those of us who enjoy the benefit of paying in arrears. My Bill asks for so-called self-disconnection to be stopped. I can think of no reason for any fair-minded person not to support that request. I am hopeful, verging on confident, that the Government will agree to it, but they need to act quickly. I cannot be standing here in a year’s time next winter talking about how we are nudging toward getting this resolved.
Call me impatient, but I know how slowly things often move in this place. I also know that the Government can move quickly when they need to. I contend that if I have to wait even until the new year, given the winter that has been predicted, I will have waited too long. More importantly, people on prepayment meters will have waited too long. It is not melodramatic or even an exaggeration to say that, if we do not deal with this urgently, I am afraid that people will die—people who would have lived had my Bill been adopted. All this when energy companies are raking in billions and bragging that they literally do not know what to do with their profits. Why is none of them leading the charge, instead of waiting for legislation possibly to get through? I am using this 10-minute rule Bill slot to challenge publicly just one of them to step forward and announce an end to the practice.
Let me give Members some background facts. We know that those on prepayment meters are generally on a low income. Some find it easier to budget if they can pay as they go, but most are given no choice. They struggle to pay their bills, so their energy supplier gains entry to their home and installs a prepayment meter. We also know that they pay more per unit of energy and higher daily standing charges than the rest of us, and they pay in advance while the rest of us pay in arrears. Normally, advance payments attract discounts, but that is not so for those on prepayment meters.
We know from the low uptake of pension credit that pensioners are often the last to reach out and ask for help. That means that many of them are existing on far less than the Government believe that they need, and many of those people are on prepayment meters. Caroline Abrahams of Age UK recently said that, for an older person, being cold
“even for just a short amount of time can be very dangerous as it increases the risk of associated health problems and preventable deaths during the winter.”
We simply cannot let pensioners self-disconnect this winter. They must be treated at least equally to MPs when it comes to the right to be warm. The right to be treated equally is crucial, because the only arguments that I have heard against the proposal are that people could end up in debt and that they might simply not bother to pay their bills. On the latter point, I would argue very strongly that those on prepayment meters are no more likely simply not to bother to pay their bills than those of us paying by different methods.
It is a risk that stopping self-disconnection could lead to people being in debt, but to that I would say two things. First, if the rest of us, paying by different methods, are allowed to take the risk of ending up in debt and are trusted to find ways to resolve it without being cut off, why not those on prepayment meters? Secondly, at the end of the day, if anyone in the Chamber were asked to choose between debt or death for their constituent, who among us would not choose debt as the lesser of two evils? That may sound dramatic, but life is very dramatic and unpredictable at the moment, and our constituents’ lives will be at risk.
I ask whichever MP will be on duty to shout “Object!” to my Bill on Second Reading to prevent it from going any further, as is common practice—unless they are planning to do it today—to be aware of the choice that they are making for their constituents on prepayment meters. We all have many such constituents. The last figures that we can access tell us that almost 4.2 million people are on prepayment meters. In Glasgow, there are almost 67,000, but even in the Prime Minister’s local authority there are more than 1,000 and in your local authority, Madam Deputy Speaker—I am sure that you know this—the figure is 16,596. Those figures were last published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2019, so we do not have an exact number, but clearly the numbers are rising. Figures from Ofgem comparison website Uswitch recently revealed that 60,000 new prepayment meters were installed across the UK in the six months to March. Does it not seem perverse that as energy prices and energy company profits soar, poor and vulnerable people are being forced on to more expensive methods of paying for that energy?
I recently had a meeting with the Simon Community, one of the leading homelessness organisations in Scotland. It told me that many of the people it has been supporting to get off the streets and into a tenancy have found their new-found optimism to be short lived when they face the problem of being on a prepayment meter. The warmth and comfort that has eluded them for so long is again taken away when they run out of money, as many do because, having been homeless and having lived without an address, and for some having battled health problems, many are not yet in employment, or certainly not in well-paid employment. In no time, they are back to square one. According to the Simon Community, people have been walking the streets to keep warm. What an utterly ridiculous and cruel situation.
Who else will have their lives put at risk if energy companies do not stop the practice? Perhaps most disturbing of all is the case of those whose life expectancy has already been curtailed. I am talking about those who are terminally ill. When the Bill appeared on the Order Paper, I was contacted by Marie Curie, which as many colleagues will know has a campaign called “Dying in poverty”. It has been telling MPs about the additional costs incurred by the use of vital medical equipment such as breathing devices. It told me that the average cost of an electricity bill can rise by 75% for someone who is terminally ill. That is bad enough, but for someone on a prepayment meter, so-called self-disconnection really becomes life threatening.
In addition, people often find when they return home after a lengthy stay in hospital or a hospice that they have a huge bill to pay before they can access electricity because, despite not being at home, the daily standing charges have mounted up and the meter will take that money first. How can we do that to people? I ask that without apportioning blame politically, because I do not believe that anyone in this place would intend that to happen or try to justify it. I said earlier that I was feeling hopeful, verging on confident, that the Government would listen and act. I am usually very critical of the Government but I simply do not believe that they would wish this on any of our constituents. Nor do I believe that they would knowingly allow anyone, and certainly not pensioners, people who have been homeless and those who are already dying, to suffer in such a way when they and I, as well-paid MPs and Government Ministers, with no excuse to run up debts, would none the less be allowed to do so and thus keep our homes warm, simply because we pay in a different way.
I often criticise the Government for their lack of action on equalities, but this is a very stark inequality on which I believe they will agree with me. I reiterate that my Bill asks for one thing only: for those on prepayment meters to have equal treatment to that of all other bill payers when it comes to disconnection. I want an end to so-called self-disconnection. It is cruel, dangerous and will end the lives of our constituents prematurely if we do not stop it. But we can stop it.
Question put and agreed to.
That Anne McLaughlin, Craig Whittaker, Sally-Ann Hart, Alison Thewliss, Alan Brown, Stuart C. McDonald, Jeremy Corbyn, Liz Saville Roberts, Colum Eastwood, Kate Osborne, Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Stewart Malcolm McDonald present the Bill.
Anne McLaughlin accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday