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Social Justice

Don’t Pay UK: Why are people cancelling their energy bills?

Campaigners at Don’t Pay UK explain why they are cancelling their energy bills this winter as the cost of living crisis spirals

Can’t pay? Don’t Pay. That’s the message from campaigners calling for people across the UK to cancel their direct debits to energy suppliers this month. 

Don’t Pay UK is a grassroots movement set up earlier this year to protest against extortionate energy costs. A quarter of a million people have pledged to strike, and many backers have already cancelled their direct debits and are refusing to pay more than they can afford.

These are people who are angry with the government and the huge profits generated by energy companies. They are also people who simply cannot afford to pay their bills.

The campaign is controversial. Lawyer Gary Rycroft told The Big Issue earlier this year it could have “disastrous” consequences for individuals. People could fall into debt, be taken to court and it could make it difficult for them to buy a house or get another energy contract in the future. And if you don’t pay, the business is within its legal rights to cease providing energy to you.

Richard Lane, of the charity StepChange, warned a debt collector could turn up at your home. An energy company can also get a court warrant to enter your home to fit a prepayment meter. 

While the strike was originally planned for October 1, it was called off days before because it did not have a million backers. Now the group has changed tack – it  realised the figure was arbitrary and many people could not afford to pay their energy bills regardless. 

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The Guardian revealed that 2.3 million households were behind on their electricity bills at the end of June, and 1.8 million were behind on their gas bills.

Don’t Pay UK campaigners told us why they are cancelling their direct debits regardless of the risks, how the campaign is growing and their demands from the government. 

Alex, a 53-year-old manual therapist in north London

I heard about Don’t Pay in the summer, when I was staying in France. I had cancelled my direct debits in April, when I heard about the energy price hikes. All my French friends were saying: “This would not happen in France. This is ridiculous. What is this?” It made me think: “Yeah, this is crazy.”

I needed control over my income, so I cancelled my direct debits and sent in meter readings instead. Then I found Don’t Pay and a community of people who were doing what I’ve already done. They were taking a stance. 

When I got back from France, nobody really knew what was happening with their energy bills. I live in social housing and the Don’t Pay literature helps me tell my neighbours what’s going on. The cost of living crisis is hitting everyone. It’s not about class or race. Every single person is affected. 

Where I live, we’re at the lowest end of the breadline. These are people who are the worst affected and they are also the most marginalised. A lot of my neighbours are refugees or they don’t speak English as a first language. It is hard for them to step out and get involved. They might not want to, and some just don’t know how to.

I’ve not noticed any repercussions so far. If my next bill is more than I can afford, I’ll just pay what I was before. I don’t think energy should be free. We need to pay for resources we use, but we shouldn’t be paying so much that it’s only going into the pockets of shareholders and companies that are already making such profits. 

I’m not worried about being taken to court or falling into debt right now. If I do pay these extortionate amounts, I’ll be in debt anyway. I’ll have a conversation with my energy supplier and say I’m finding it hard to pay my bills. I will not let them put a prepayment meter or smart meter in, because that will give them more control. 

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Don’t Pay gives us the opportunity to take some of the power and control back. It’s a non-profit. They are just young people with good ideas. 

This campaign might only have a quarter of a million people signed up, but there’s millions of people living in fuel poverty who can’t afford to pay their bills. If we act together, the more power we have to have conversations with the government and energy providers. 

When you are poor, and when you live on the breadline, you know how to live cheaply. You don’t have to tell us what food to buy. You don’t have to tell us how to save on energy bills. We’ve been sitting in the dark for years. 

We need the government to help us and place a tougher windfall tax on these energy providers and put more money back into the system. 

Joe, a 27-year-old PhD student in south London

I was searching for a campaign like this for a while. My energy bills were so high. I had been saving to get a medical diagnosis, and all my savings were completely destroyed by the cost of living crisis and the energy crisis. 

I thought mass non-payment was a really good idea, and I became an organiser. We have a lot of disparate groups but we all have the same mission. We’re asking for anybody who hasn’t already to cancel their direct debits. 

I cancelled mine on October 1, and I haven’t seen any repercussions yet. But I know some people have had debt collection services turn up at their doors. 

Debt collectors are going to be a problem, but I’ve made my peace with it. I’m currently trying to climb out of my overdraft. I’m very used to living in negative figures. 

It’s crucial to understand there is strength in numbers. The more people do this, the more difficulties the companies will have. E.ON called the Don’t Pay campaign an “existential threat”. We already know energy companies are concerned.

The idea isn’t to get people to fight energy companies. It’s to get energy companies to do the fighting for us by pressuring them into lobbying the government. Don’t Pay is a shoestring operation. We know it’s energy companies who can actually enact change. 

Millions of people are already behind on their energy bills. When we go out canvassing, we frequently speak to people who haven’t signed up but they’ve heard about Don’t Pay and think it’s a great idea. We know the support is there. 

We don’t want to put anyone on a pedestal so we don’t have a figurehead. We know communication has been a problem and we’re trying to improve it. We’re amalgamating some of our more disparate groups, and we’re making sure there are coordinators for each area. 

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The best thing for people to do would be to email or write a letter to their MP, because the more pressure we put on the government, the better.

I think there is often a lot of despondency, with people thinking: “What can I possibly do as a single person?” But if you’ve got 100,000 people thinking that, you’ve got 100,000 people who can change the world. 

We want the energy price cap to be back to the April 2021 rate, which was still too high but it is a massive reduction in comparison to today. We want an end to diabolical prepayment meters. And we don’t want people to be cold this winter. 

These are not big asks from a government that has a prime minister who is twice as rich as a king, who is unelected and is telling us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps so we can survive this winter.

Read more of The Big Issue’s coverage of the Don’t Pay UK campaign

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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