A campaign is urging 1 million consumers to stop paying their energy bills from October in protest at record price hikes.
Run by a group of activists who are operating anonymously for fear of repercussions from energy firms, the Don’t Pay campaign launched last Saturday and has already gathered 4,000 social media followers. They say they are hoping for a rerun of the poll tax protests that helped bring down Margaret Thatcher’s government when 17 million people refused to pay.
The manifesto, emblazoned in black and yellow on the group’s website, says: “Millions of us won’t be able to afford food and bills this winter. We cannot afford to let that happen. We demand a reduction of bills to an affordable level. We will cancel our direct debits from 1 October if we are ignored.”
Energy costs have rocketed this year, with the annual cap on average bills raised by almost £700 to nearly £2,000 in April. It is expected to rise again in October to just under £3,000, meaning costs will have more than doubled in less than a year. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced a £15bn package of help to provide one-off payments to households, but Don’t Pay argues this will not be enough.
“So much hope has been lost and we’re just heading towards a genuinely catastrophic winter,” said Tom, a spokesperson for the initiative. “Thousands of people will freeze to death in their homes if we do nothing.” He is demanding “intervention on a broad scale” and a cut to bills.
Tom is one of the “15 to 20” working on the campaign. He is deliberately vague about his background, only disclosing that he has worked in “energy adjacent policy”, and declines to give his surname. “We’re not actually telling people not to pay, we’re saying ‘this is an idea’, but it can be construed as inciting people to break contracts and they can pursue people personally,” he says of the decision to remain anonymous.
Tom says he was inspired by bleak encounters with consumers struggling to pay bills. “I’ve spoken to people who are suffering with cancer who say they are training themselves to withstand the cold or to only have one or two meals a day – all their energy should be spent fighting this terrible disease. And parents who aren’t feeding themselves to feed their kids, but also wrapping kids in blankets and a coat while they try to do their homework.”
The campaign is using social media and community groups to gain momentum. About 20,000 leaflets have been ordered from the website in the first week by people looking to join the campaign across England, Scotland and Wales.
Don’t Pay aims to get 1 million of the 28 million UK electricity customers to stop paying their monthly direct debit, if no action is taken to cushion October’s hike. It estimates 1 million people could withhold £1.4bn from energy company coffers through the winter.
Those who sign up will not be asked to publicly state their refusal to pay but to simply share their approximate location to show the scale of the potential “mass non-payment strike”.
The campaigners are upfront about the risks involved. Those on prepayment meters are discouraged as they will be disconnected when their credit runs out. Suppliers will typically contact consumers if they have not paid their bill after 28 days. The company must then give them the opportunity to clear their debt through a payment plan.
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If a consumer refuses to sign up to a plan, they can be forced to move to a prepayment meter. “This will mean you can’t use energy without paying – and you’ll pay even more for it,” said Sarah Coles, a senior personal finance analyst at the investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown. “There are certain rules they have to follow before they can do this, and they can’t do it if it would be unsafe, but as long as they stick to the rules, you can’t stop them. If you refuse to let them in, they can get a warrant, and the cost of the warrant will be added to your outstanding debt.”
In extreme circumstances, suppliers may disconnect customers by getting a court warrant or cut them off remotely if they have a smart meter. Vulnerable people or those over the state pension age cannot be disconnected during winter. If energy bills are included within rent and the rent is not paid, landlords may move to evict the tenant.
Don’t Pay argues that thousands of customers not paying simultaneously will “cause paralysis and create a months-long backlog”. Tom argues: “If there’s a million people and they decided to go down the route of trying to take everyone to court that wouldn’t be particularly successful.”