prepayment meter

Are the Lights Staying on?

Leo Plumb – 28th July 2022

Leo asks in the context of the cost of living crisis, what is really going on in our communities now? With the emergence of Community Campaigns like ‘Power to the People’ in Glasgow, are we all about to see desperation turn into leverage over the Government? 

We have rapidly entered a new stage in the energy and cost of living crisis. Stuck between present and future shocks expected in the winter months. Many people are sensing a mood change amongst their communities. In parallel to this, activists in the UK who were initially numbed by the scale of the cost of living crisis are forming alternative strategies to combat it.

Martin Lewis (the money saving expert) is on daytime television talking about potential mass civil unrest, a watershed moment? But what is really going on in our communities now? Are we all about to learn something about how desperation produces leverage over the Government?   

The coming shocks I refer to, are the energy price hikes expected in October 2022 as the caps which limit what energy retailers can charge will be lifted by the regulator, OFGEM. For millions of people, their energy bills were already raised by 54% back in April. A further 65% increase is predicted in the autumn. These headlines are now common knowledge. A lesser understood implication is that, just as happened during the pandemic, more energy retailers are expected to go bust, forcing households to switch to new suppliers who in many cases will charge a higher tariff.

“If you think things are bad now, you’ve not seen anything yet.”Those were the words brought directly to the Westminster Government this week. The chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee relayed the findings of their most recent report on energy pricing. The committee report branded the ‘support measures‘ being offered to low income households as inadequate:  ‘no longer sufficient’ under current circumstances. 

New forms of responses to fuel poverty are beginning to emerge. In many ways we are seeing tiers of demands from previous campaigns now being consolidated once more.   

This week, I spoke to several people involved in the ‘Power to the People’ campaign  which launched in Glasgow a fortnight ago. This is one example of local community campaigns to ensure households can afford their bills. The campaign group is calling for the public to put pressure on the energy companies and for the government to take serious actions:

  • Freeze energy prices not people
  • Stop the late fees 
  • Scrap prepayment meters. 

This campaign emerged in Glasgow in late May, during a public meeting of the Socialist Energy Summit. A coalition was improvised including spokespeople Matt Kerr, a local Labour Councillor, and Frances Curran, a leader in the Scottish Socialist Party. 

Organisers began by chapping doors, in the Cardonald area in South West of Glasgow, Kerr’s council ward. By speaking to people on the doorstep they were able to gauge what the public knew of the situation, how many families were already experiencing spiralling debt and how they were preparing to act.

It is now a citywide camapign, gaining strength online. Supporters involved in this camapign come from a mix of backgrounds and political positions. The matching of local residents and experienced activists is one reason people are able to move beyond the ‘no end in sight’ concerns they raised in the weeks before. Organisers of Power to the People are urging supporters to join the camapign and join the demonstration on 12th August outside Scottish Power HQ in Glasgow.

There is a lot to learn from the rise of locally organised responses and there are plenty around the UK. In Dundee the Trades Council organised demonstrations to begin building a response within the local community and trade Unions. In London they’ve seen the launch of the DON’T PAY campaign. This group are advocating for a ‘refusal to pay’ strike. This would mean that, if the government doesn’t scrap the energy price hike scheduled for 1st October, those who have pledged their support will cancel their direct debits to energy companies. The organisers of Don’t Pay say this proposal can only work if local groups recruit 1 million bill-payers under the pledge. To an extent, the Don’t Pay campaign is simply organising around an existing intention in society. Martin Lewis categorises this as ‘a substantial warning to the government.’ 

Parallels to the Anti-poll tax campaign which started in the 1980s have been drawn by observers, but as the organisers of ‘Power to the People’ have expressed, this situation is different. It is more complex. We are not simply talking about a single financial cut to household finances. People are already not paying because they simply can’t. A cruel winter will be the result. Yes, people will die of hunger and cold across the UK in their homes. We will see the lights go out in some houses and some of them will not switch back on. 

A person’s capacity to take part in any form of direct action, has not been so stretched for a long time. There are different vulnerabilities at stake. Setting aside food costs, wages, pensions, benefits, national insurance, other outgoing costs such as phone, broadband and existing debts, then other basic factors include the method of payment and method of prosecution a person faces.

If a bill payer incurs a late payment fee, these multiply over weeks, initially £10, £20 rising to £100 then suddenly far higher etc. People may be less inclined to seek immediate support and therefore ignite the spiral. The energy companies are claiming this cost of ‘collecting debt’ should be passed to households. Ending the late payment fees altogether should be one of the key demands and should be a rallying point for local people and their elected representatives and MP’s to unite behind. (Scottish Power introduced these fees as recently as June 2022.)

For households on prepayment meters (a pay as you go top-up box) there is an enormous injustice.  These are often the poorest households. Having seen prepayment meters challenged during housing struggles it is is reassuring to see the system being fought against now. People pay disproportionately more for energy on a prepayment meter. If they are given credit in an emergency situation this can incur a secondary debt. Even with a smart meter, the poorer you become, fall behind on payments, the higher the likelihood that your energy supplier will switch you to a prepayment meter.

The pressure on families to foot this bill will be met with defiance, people will fight it. If popular support for a non-payment strike is reached, what will it take to ensure support is in place for participating families? The Power to the People campaign is already explaining that local campaigns must take time to grow and move forward flexibly to educate people and to develop understanding of the risks of any course of action. They would need to be flanked by a range of community and labour movements. Matt Kerr urged that a continuing call should be to reopen more community facilities in Glasgow, for the warmth, shelter, food preparation facilities. And for the inevitable advice hubs to be situated there.

As with all shocks, there are sequence of delays, before reality hits home. It may be some months time before we see a mass scale default on bill payments. People will turn to decide what they next cannot afford in droves. You can hazard a guess that Council tax payments, rent, monthly financial agreements on cars. are all likely next stages. Therefore local authority infrastructure, housing and businesses will all be drawn into this crisis anew. The Power to the People campaign has reiterated that this cost of living crisis is generated by years of devastating political decisions. For example many European countries have been afforded much more flexibility with some nationally-run energy companies. The TUC came out this week calling for public ownership of energy companies. It begs the question could public ownership gain a real swing of support again? If there are positives to be drawn from this situation, it is that between the shocks there is a moment for strategising for the future and cohering our communities around a set of demands for change.    

If you can offer support to Power to the People or you are interested in setting up a similar local campaign. Contact them via Social Media here or attend the demonstration on Friday 12th August at 4pm outside Scottish Power Headquarters in Glasgow.

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