Millions will be cut off from gas and electricity services this winter, as new research from Citizens Advice details the extent to which households are affected by the inability to afford prepayment power top-ups.
The independent, state-funded advice service has said its advisers are helping more people than ever who cannot pay for energy. This winter is expected to be the busiest ever for people who cannot afford meter payments.
The number of people in energy bill debt has topped 5.3 million, according to its research. Being in debt means people are at risk of having a prepayment meter forcibly installed in their home, which they may not be able to afford to top up.
Such installation of meters has recommenced after a temporary pause following outrage when an undercover investigation by The Times revealed major energy companies were installing meters in the homes of vulnerable users.
It comes as the energy price cap has risen this month, bringing prices up, and Citizens Advice data says 800,000 people went more than 24 hours without gas or electricity in 2023 because they could not afford top-ups.
The research also says 1.7 million people were disconnected at least once a month last year.
Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty said: "The government has not provided new energy bill support for those in need and has run out of time to develop the long-term approach it promised by April 2024.
"Without immediate action, we risk re-running this same crisis every winter."
To keep meters topped up and gas and electricity serving homes, nearly three million people are part of households that have skipped meals, cut back on food spending, or sold or pawned items in the last year.
Of particular concern, Citizens Advice says, are the households with children under four, who are twice as likely to be in debt and be forced to disconnect from gas and electricity supplies, compared with those who do not have children.
However, new rules on force-fitting prepayment meters only limit installations for households with children under two.
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More broadly, the survey says one in four cannot afford essential bills while one in 10 households had to borrow money in the past six months to pay energy bills.
Half of those in energy bill debt surveyed by Citizens Advice for the research are trying to meet payments by turning off the heat.
Energy debt has hit a record £2.9bn, the service added.
A spokesperson for Ofgem, the independent energy regulator, said: "Ofgem shares the concerns of Citizens Advice about the issue of rising debt and customers self-disconnecting from their energy supply amid the wider cost of living pressures.
"We already have introduced tougher rules to make sure that energy companies do more to spot the signs when a customer may be struggling and step in to offer support, including working out affordable payment plans and providing emergency credit to reduce the risk of self-disconnection.
"We work closely with Citizens Advice and other consumer groups and charities to address the issues people are facing and we will continue to explore more options to help struggling and vulnerable customers."
A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said: "We recognise the cost of living challenges families are facing, which is why we are spending £104bn supporting households with their bills.
"While energy prices are lower than last winter, our Energy Price Guarantee remains in place to protect people until April, and we encourage anyone experiencing difficulties with their energy bills to speak with their supplier.
"We're also continuing to support the most vulnerable, with three million households expected to benefit from the £150 Warm Home Discount, £900 for those on means-tested benefits, and an extra £150 for disabled people."