A smart response?

Soaring energy prices are leading towards mass action in October, when 100,000 people intend to refuse to pay their gas and electric bills

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A campaign group demanding a reduction of energy bills has gathered support from 100,000 people who intend to cancel their direct debit payments from 1 October if bills are not reduced to an affordable level.

The Don’t Pay UK group has gathered momentum through social media and aims to take action when the regulator raises the energy price cap this autumn if one million pledges are made.

A spokesperson from Don’t Pay UK said: “In just a few weeks, over 100,000 of us from across the country have come together to say we will refuse to be pushed into fuel poverty and we no longer want to pay for the profits of the energy companies. We are building the biggest mass non-payment campaign since the Poll Tax and we are showing the powers that be that our collective power will force an end to this crisis.

“For too long we have sat by whilst power and wealth in this country have been accumulated by too few people at the expense of the rest of us.”

But last week charities warned people of the serious consequences of not paying their energy bills. Energy bills are given “priority” status, meaning if people don’t pay them, their supplier can collect the what’s owed to them using a debt collection agency. Suppliers can also obtain a court warrant to enter people’s homes to fit a prepayment card meter – which can have arrears added to it.

Money saving expert Martin Lewis echoed warnings over the consequences of non-payment and has instead called on the two Conservative party leadership candidates to meet with the prime minister in a bid to intervene in what is predicted to be a dreadful winter for millions.

Boris Johnson has ruled out introducing new cost of living measures until a new government is in place – with his official spokesperson saying there are no plans for a Cobra meeting to address the crisis.

“I can’t fathom the scale of poverty and destitution communities are facing in winter if action isn’t taken.”

But campaigners have warned waiting for a new prime minister to be announced on 5 September is too late. Last week energy marketing intelligence firm Cornwall Insight released its latest prediction for upcoming price hikes. Based on Ofgem methodology, the analysis predicts an 81 per cent price cap rise in October, taking a typical bill to £3,582 a year. And a further 19 per cent is expected in January, taking the average bill to £4,266.

While the government delays action, a combination of fear and anger over the cost-of-living crisis is forcing people to take desperate measures.

One Don’t Pay UK organiser told Big Issue North: “My family and friends and many other people I’ve spoken to are terrified – we genuinely don’t know how we will be able to afford heating and eating and avoid drowning in debt.

“Energy debts have already skyrocketed to record levels and we’re at the height of summer. I can’t fathom the scale of poverty and destitution our communities are facing in autumn and winter if action isn’t taken to address the crisis. Meanwhile the profits of billionaire energy companies have tripled, reaching record levels – it’s grotesque.”

Don’t Pay UK is made up of volunteers and funded by donations. To hit its target of one million supporters the Don’t Pay group is calling on volunteer organisers to help with leafleting and setting up Zoom calls and in-person meet-ups to encourage more people to pledge support.

For many facing soaring energy bills this winter, it won’t necessarily be a case of “don’t pay”, but simply “can’t pay”.

The organiser said: “Some people have signed up to the pledge on the Don’t Pay UK website because they have no choice – they will not be able to pay.”

This isn’t the first time a campaign organising non-payment has gathered pace. In 1990 local authorities and the government were forced to grapple with the mass non-payment of the despised poll tax – leading to its abolition.

But Stuart Wilks-Heeg, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, points out that while there are comparisons to be drawn between the poll tax resistance and the Don’t Pay campaign, there are some differences.

“If we think back to that time, the kind of records which authorities had about people and how they could be kept were very different to how they are now,” says Wilks-Heeg.

“There were people who didn’t pay, and they could do things like move house, particularly if they were in rented accommodation. If they moved to another local authority it was very, very hard for councils at that time to work out whether people had moved, where they were now, and for the courts to do the same thing. And even though that would have potentially affected people’s credit ratings, all that information was just gone, and because of the nature of legislation the liability was wiped after six years.

“Poll tax non-payment was massive – it was absolutely colossal. But most of the people who took that step to not pay never did pay and would never be seriously in danger of having to pay. Those debts were simply wiped out. With the situation we’re in now and the nature of what we’re talking about, I think it’s going to be much harder for people to evade it.”

Despite energy companies reporting eye-watering profits over recent months, it’s important to note the retailers are not wholly at fault – they are passing on the wholesale price rises of their suppliers. Only the government can take on the likes of Shell and BP with measures to bring down payments for customers.

Last week former prime minister Gordon Brown called for the energy price cap to be cancelled and for the government to negotiate new lower prices with the companies, comparing the situation to the 2009 banking crisis when some banks were temporarily nationalised to protect consumers.

Wilks-Heeg said the government is going to have to do something “very unconservative” to handle the crisis.

“I’m astounded that there isn’t serious political discussion of this,” Wilks-Heeg told Big Issue North.

“Obviously, we’ve got the Conservative leadership contest going on. And if you look at how they’re responding to questions about this, it’s just laughable.

“We know we’ve got a very, very serious crisis. If you look at the kind of old definition, which is still in use, of fuel poverty, it’s that you’re paying more than 10 per cent of your household income on fuel. Almost everybody will be in fuel poverty under that definition. And some people are going to be paying way more than 10 per cent of their income.

“[Many] people won’t be able to pay. And what happens then? Do the energy companies try to prosecute millions and millions of people?”

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