Self-Disconnection and Solidarity

My son’s school is collecting for a local Food Bank. “What’s a food bank?” he asks. The lengthy explanation causes some confusion. Of course we should support our local food bank and we will, but the extent to which this fairly recent phenomenon has become completely normalised is worth registering. It’s become routine to assume that large sections of the population rely on charity to avoid complete destitution. In Britain in 2023 grotesque poverty is just normal.

We used to call it Blue Peter Politics. Fundraising and charity for ‘good causes’ was routine. It was usually abroad, normally Africa. Now the charitable causes are next door. It’s your friends and neighbours. It could be you that’s the subject of a random act of kindness next.

Many of us are living so precariously close to the poverty line, or already struggling in it. A while back we started calling us the ‘just about managing’. I remember lying in the bath reading when the lights went out. My pre-paid meter had run out. It was winter and the flat was cold. The challenge was to get the card topped up and the heating and lighting back on before the kids came back from school. I wasn’t alone. More than seven million households in Britain have one. Now MPs have called for a ban on forced installations of prepayment meters amid fears that elderly and vulnerable people are being effectively cut off from heating and power supplies.

The SNP MP Anne McLaughlin said: “I support the cause to have a moratorium on forced installation. It’s morally repugnant that companies can do that to people and they abdicate responsibility by calling it self-disconnection. As if the person has any agency over it: if you don’t have money, you don’t have any agency over it …The government needs to introduce an immediate moratorium.”

McLaughlin has sponsored a private member’s bill that requires energy companies to allow a grace period before disconnecting customers with prepayment meters who have run out of credit, granting them extended emergency credit for six months.

This doesn’t seem enough.

Last year anti-poverty campaigners called for an immediate ban on pre-payment meter (PPM) installations made under court warrants because of fears that energy suppliers are using them to disconnect the poorest, most indebted customers “by the back door”. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition said transferring households on to PPMs, which require regular top-ups and charge for energy at a higher rate, often prompted people in debt to “self-disconnect”.

The language is cute, the euphemisms are tired.

Kerry Hudson, author of Lowborn, writes:

“In November the End Fuel Poverty Coalition … and some local councils called for a moratorium on forcibly switching people who have fallen behind on their bills this winter. The argument was that it would lead to “self-disconnecting” — that is, when you have already used your small amount of emergency credit and have no money to top up. To me, describing having no money for heat or light as “self-disconnecting” is like calling having no money for food a hunger strike.”

Citizens Advice research showed that 3.2 million people ran out of credit on their meter in 2022 as the cost of living crisis left families struggling to keep the lights on. That means that one person is being cut off from their energy supply every 10 seconds as millions of people cannot afford to top up their prepayment meter (‘Energy firms target homes in fuel poverty, using court warrants to forcibly install prepayment meters‘).

Nor is the government help being accessed. In December the Guardian reported: “Up to half a million of the UK’s most vulnerable families have been left without government help to pay their energy bills since October, with an estimated 1.3m vouchers for homes with prepayment meters either lost, delayed or unclaimed. Households have missed out on an estimated £80m of government help during the two months since the scheme launched.”

A moratorium on forced installation has to be supported, but it also feels inadequate. Private companies maximising profit through the courts is just predatory capitalism. Pre-paid meters are morally repugnant and pretending they are a solution is just Doublespeak. Hudson again: “The trouble with this is that a prepayment meter is a more expensive way to pay for energy …If people are in debt because they can’t afford to pay for energy, a plan that insists that they pay for energy at a higher rate while they pay off their debts seems doomed to fail.”

Like foodbanks, fuel poverty has gone from the relative fringes to your own home, and for those who have been languishing in the crisis for years, or even generations, they are asking ‘where were you back then?’ It’s a fair question.

The social and economic crisis is deepening, and the fact that government (s) seem to have little or no credible response is sinking in. If a government cannot – or will not protect it’s citizens from the worst ravages of economic exploitation the social contract fails. Providing the conditions for homes that you can live in and income that you can feed yourself is not an ambitious target. It’s 2023.

Despite a decades-long culture war on the poor, the media demonising those on benefits and relentless attacks on trade unions and striking workers, the support for public sector action seems to be holding up. Perhaps the reality of foodbanks in hospitals is just an injustice too far, a sick cruelty that people can’t stand. Solidarity is here at last. The propaganda – to frame people as ‘scroungers’ or to divide and conquer by separating the ‘deserving and the undeserving poor’ – or to vilify striking workers as militants isn’t working. People don’t buy it anymore. The end-result of thirteen years of Tory corruption and misrule is solidarity and anger. Normalising poverty was a political choice, and people have realised that. When we get them out there’s a whole society to repair, and we’ll need more than a moratorium.


Comments (24)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonal says:

    Yes, indeed.

    I remember as a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s how my parents would turn the meter mechanism only part of the way, so that when the electricity switched off we could go back, when we needed, and get a few more minutes of supply. Sometimes, these few more minutes were needed to find a purse or a tin where there were coins. Fumbling in the dark for these held the risk of them being dropped and the coins being lost. It seemed so normal, because that was the world I had entered.

    There really has to be a consensus that there are things which are essential for the common good – water, energy, clean air, clothes, nutritious food, shelter – and that these should be a right for us all. Sadly, too many people are thirled to the malign characterisation of this as ‘the something for nothing society’, as it was described by the LABOUR – yes, LABOUR – politician, Johan Lamont.

  2. James Mills says:

    This ‘country’ has regressed to the post war days .
    I remember when growing up that central heating was a fantasy for most , when living from one pay packet to the next meant going without proper meals towards the end of the working week , no coat for Winter unless one could be had down ‘Paddy’s market ”, one pair of shoes that were lined with paper when leaking ….
    I thought that those were the Bad Old days – now they are upon too many again !
    Progress ?

  3. Bill says:

    The energy companies have it both ways, disconnect the poor and continue to take the direct debit from the better off, even when they are massively in credit. The normalising of food banks is an issue, like the destruction of the NHS, which were taken by political decisions. We are suffering under the Tory hegemony. Again I refer you to the speech by Aneurin Bevan, Manchester July 1948.. The Tories are spivs and we now have a corrupted system that they manage. We not only need to get them out, but also to get out of the corrupted system. A Scottish republic, with a written Constitution and a Bill of Rights, that clearly indicates the responsibilities of the citizen and the method of governance of the State is required.
    The current displacement activity in the right wing press over the Royal family is totally disgusting in a country which is suffering such a number of crises, due to the Tories and the system of governance. That the new king has said nothing of consequence on these problems is shameful and we really need to end this appalling regime. To those who are concerned about electing a President, may I direct you to Eire where the recent Presidents have been of an excellent calibre. I am sure that Scotland has in its midst any number of people who could match, Mary Robinson, Mary MacAleese or Michael Higgins.

    Roll on the Republic, Independence and a State that reflects the better aspects of humanity.


    1. Jim Ritchie says:

      Too right Bill

  4. Antoine Bisset says:

    An electricity retailer, Spark Energy, operated by selling electricity to tenants by persuading landlords to include in the rental contract a requirement for the tenant to buy electricity from Spark. The landlords made a profit.
    The mechanics were that the tenants were billed by Spark and the landlords received a commission.
    This was not a business model that was made clear to the tenants. I suppose that they were not intended to know that their landlords were charging for rent and for electricity. It was explained to me by the financial director of Spark.
    Spark Energy are no longer around. However that business model may be in use by other electricity retailers.

  5. Meg Macleod says:

    Good article especially highlighting the practise of charging more for fuel on pre paid meters….unjustifiable

  6. Alan C says:

    If only there was something the SNP could do eh, bloody traitors the lot of them. They conned donations out of me for years and I feel like I’ve been mugged. Independance? Not in my lifetime I fear.

  7. JP58 says:

    As food and fuel poverty becomes more widespread it starts affecting people we know or people in our families and not ‘others’. When this happens and it begins to impact on people they empathise more with those affected and the tabloid demonisation of those ‘others’ is shown up for what it is.
    There are many examples of this happening over last fifty years eg attitude to many coloured and gay people where from being a minority many of us had little or no contact with they became people who were work colleagues, social friends and family.
    It is tragic and a condemnation of primarily UK government since 2008 that food and fuel poverty is becoming so widespread that many of us are becoming so affected by it.

  8. Wul says:

    We live in a country that sometimes produces more energy that it uses. We have oil and gas fields, wind farms, nuclear power plants, hydro-electric generation, a quarter of Europe’s renewable energy potential.

    And yet, a distant war has our citizens paying top dollar for our own energy in a global “marketplace”. Our government designed it this way.

    Are we daft?

  9. SleepingDog says:

    Applied Thermodynamics should be taught from primary school as a survival skill, but aside from that, the quality of housing has a vast impact on energy use for heating. If housing was designed for energy-efficiency, with basic renewable heating built in, the need for additional heating should be neglible except in the rarest cold snaps. But with the stock we have, there are still more socially-reasonable alternatives to charging, such as an escalating tranche price for domestic consumption, with the bottom tranche cheap or even free, then exponentially increasing with levels of usage (possibly with rebates for occupancy).

    But we also need to look at the vast amounts of energy and food that are currently being wasted or worse (negative effects of over-consumption, over-exploitation, pollution etc.), and make cultural adaptations to render these more broadly unacceptable.

  10. florian albert says:

    ‘The end result of thirteen years of Tory corruption and misrule is solidarity and anger.’

    I would like to believe that there has been a growth of solidarity in our society – I am much more ambivalent about anger. However, I do not see much evidence of the former.

    There are lots of strikes but they are mostly strikes by those who are (comparatively) well-off. Most of those striking are in the public sector and have more secure jobs and better conditions, including pensions, than in the private sector.
    Those going on strike are doing so to protect their own position in our unequal society.
    Repairing a whole society will involve a lot of people making sacrifices. I do not see much evidence of a willingness to accept this, either in Scotland or the rUK.

    1. JP58 says:

      NHS and teaching professions have an increasing number of vacancies because the pay has eroded since 2010. These infilled vacancies are causing increasing problems in providing these services which are critical to a successful and humane society. It is basic economics- I suggest you read Larry Elliot’s column in Guardian today to educate yourself further about pressures on NHS.
      Yes these professions are unionised and being in a union gives you some degree of strength. The answer to the problems of job insecurity in many other sectors is to encourage formation of unions in these sectors.
      The type of criticism you have for public service workers is very similar to what can be seen in right wing press and I only surprised you didn’t mention the ‘goldplated pensions’. These types of response only encourage a race to the bottom for pay and security which is benefit to no workers only rich business owners.
      Your comments ignore that many public service workers are poorly paid and struggling and also exhibit a whiff of disrespect if not inverse snobbery towards many dedicated public service workers.

      1. Jim Ritchie says:

        Well said

      2. florian albert says:

        In ‘The Guardian’ today, the head of the Royal College of Nursing writes about nurses having to rely on food banks. The head of the Metropolitan Police made an identical claim for his officers last week. In ‘The Herald’ recently, it was stated that midwives could not travel to work because of poverty. I would treat all three claims with the utmost scepticism.
        Why does this matter ? These are, as I wrote (comparatively) well-off groups of workers. To suggest they are amongst those at the bottom of our society demonstrates a lack of solidarity with the genuinely impoverished.

        ‘many public sector workers are poorly paid’ I am well aware of this having worked in the public sector.

        ‘the answer is to encourage formation of unions in these sectors’ Unions in these sectors are so weak because they involve comparatively unskilled workers. One of my most distinct memories of 35 years working in the public sector is from January 2001. Teachers got a 23% pay rise. (Given them by a First Minister who had been a teacher.) Dinner ladies and cleaners got no such increase. Again, an absence of solidarity.

    2. Wul says:

      Florian, who do you think should be willingly accepting that they need to make sacrifices in order to repair a whole society?

      And how specifically does their “sacrifice” “repair” society? Can you say more?

      1. florian albert says:

        How does their ‘sacrifice’ ‘repair’ society ? In the same way that paying tax for the common good does.

        Who needs to make sacrifices ? Plainly , those who can afford it. I would start with a significant increase in taxation on property.

        We live in a society where there is (just about) a consensus that we have too much inequality. In this unequal society, (just about) nobody

        accepts that they are getting more than a fair share of the total wealth.

        1. Wul says:

          “…those who can afford it”.

          Would that include “…the (comparatively) well off” public sector workers you spoke of?

          You said you were a retired public sector worker. Public sector workers have seen their pay eroded by 26% in recent years. Would you be willing to sacrifice a quarter of your pension and income to help repair society? Do you genuinely think that public sector workers accepting declining pay is going to help society? How does that work?

          Do think all those public sector workers who went on strike decades ago to protect the pay, working conditions and pension that you received were wrong to strike?

        2. Wul says:

          I mean, cop on Florian.

          Do you really think that what ails our society is public sector workers demanding pay increases that match the cost of living?
          Or the public sector worker’s desire do a day’s work without a perma-crisis of firefighting and being unable to help, teach, support or serve the public in the way that they are trained to do?

          Inequality is not solved by nurses, teachers, bin-men, posties, train guards, rail track maintenance workers etc accepting pay cuts. Surely that’s obvious?

          1. florian albert says:

            What you propose is that the those groups who have done well in our society are entitled to keep what they have.
            I disagree.
            If- as a result of external forces, e.g. war in Ukraine and the increase in energy and food prices – we have become a poorer country, those with the broadest shoulders should bear the brunt. (The very rich are too few in number and wealth to provide the necessary revenue.)
            In Scotland in 2023, that must include the better off in the (unionized) public sector professions.
            This would certainly include better-off pensioners.

          2. SleepingDog says:

            @florian albert, according to Oxfam: The richest 1% of Britons hold more wealth than 70 per cent of Britons:
            Some British interests are doing very well out of the war in Ukraine. Disaster capitalists are loving it. Your crude and unsophisticated take on economics has too many flaws to address, but one aspect is that public sector workers and their retired counterparts will spend large proportions of their income locally, whereas the super-rich typically offshore much of their assets, which does not help the British economy, and some uses will directly or indirectly harm it. By investing in good-quality and accessible public services, we create a healthier, better-educated, safer and more productive society, which prevents more expensive problems further down the line. Another aspect is that by fostering public sector ethos we counter the worst depredations of the dog-eat-dog commercial culture which poisons capitalist societies globally.

  11. Sandy Watson says:

    Is it true that the cost of electricity through a pre-payment meter is more expensive?

    1. John Wood says:

      I have been talking to someone I know here recently who is in Housing Association property and on a pre-payment meter. She is charged a very high rate for electricity and unable to change her supplier or get any help at all. She is a very caring, community minded person. There seems to be nothing at all I can do to help. As I have experienced myself, the electricity industry has the ethics of organised crime. Companies lie and bully people with impunity – they are above the law and can do as they please. Fortunately for me I have a normal meter. A contract has surely to be agreed by both parties; but if you are on a pre-payment meter, and unable to change your tariff or your supplier, it is criminal extortion (the police will however insist it is a civil matter).

      I am old enough to remember the 1950s and 60s – but in those days, electricity was run as a public service, for the public. Now it is – like everything else – only about ruthlessly exploiting people and planet alike for private profit. It don’t count ‘less it sells. Sadly the UK government cares not a jot about you or me – in fact if we all descend into debt slavery, so much the better for them. Holding down wages will drive the nurses into the private sector. And with increasing automation – closing all the rail ticket offies for example – more and more jobs are on trhe line. And a ground-down, impoverished, half starved, population fearful of losing the very roof it shelters under is far too busy just staying alive to challenge their totalitarianism and corruption.

      1. Wul says:

        I have noticed a sea-change in the way that large companies are treating me as a customer.

        The most recent was after cancelling a car insurance policy, the insurance company emailing me to say that I had cancelled my direct debit to them and I needed to call their debt helpline by phone within 7 days or they would begin legal proceedings against me.
        When I responded with; “Why don’t you just tell me what I owe you (£42) and I’ll pay it. That’s how things usually work” they refused and said this was not possible, I needed to call, by telephone, their outstanding debts team. I told them to GTF (politely).

        Earlier, my energy company became very stroppy when I asked for some of the £670 surplus “credit” that had built up in my gas and electricity account. What with it actually being my own money and it being mid-winter, when I usually have a negative account balance with them. They are dragging their heels like a petulant toddler.

        I don’t know what is emboldening these corporations to treat their customers with such disdain?

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