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Age UK calls for pre-payment meter amnesty amid concerns that forced installations are leading to vulnerable older people ‘self-disconnecting’

Published on 07 March 2023 12:01 AM

Research shows that well over half a million older households – one in four of ALL pre-payment meter customers – are now dependent on this form of pricier, pay-as-you-go energy


Older households[i] account for one in four of ALL UK households now dependent on a prepayment meter (PPM) for their energy supply – around 600,000 in total.[ii] Of these, 85 per cent – around 530,000 older households – are also living in poverty[iii] and/or are in receipt of income-related benefits[iv], meaning they are among the poorest in society, according to new analysis by Age UK.[v]


With PPM customers generally paying more for their energy than those who pay by direct debit, and at higher risk of running out of gas or electricity due to a lack of cash or difficulty accessing their meter or a top-up point, Age UK is extremely concerned about the impact of PPMs on older people living on low fixed incomes.


That’s why the Charity is calling for a ‘prepayment meter amnesty’ – to give everyone with a PPM, including these 600,000 older households, the opportunity to have it uninstalled and for free.  


According to Age UK, in too many cases having a PPM effectively results in disconnection by the back door among older customers who are struggling financially – an outrageous situation, given that the energy companies are officially committed to never disconnecting pensioners from their energy through the winter months. The Charity has been contacted by vulnerable older people using a PPM who are sitting in the cold and the dark because they can’t afford to keep their energy switched on – and ‘self-disconnecting’ out of desperation.  


The Charity believes that Ofgem needs to get on top of the PPM market and ban the forced installation of PPMs in all circumstances. Even with recent commitments from the energy companies to stop the practice of forcing vulnerable households to use a PPM, Age UK is worried that the current suspension is only a temporary measure. It is seeking urgent reassurance from the Government and Ofgem that forced installations have gone for good, and won’t return.


While 10.7 per cent of direct debit customers are in fuel poverty, the proportion is almost three times higher (30.6 per cent) for PPM users.[vi] PPM tariffs are generally more expensive than direct debit too, and their price cap is set at a higher rate. There is also a more limited range of tariff options, and most PPM users top up their meter at a local shop – presenting barriers for many older people with mobility issues or without a top-up point close to home, forcing them to go out in all weathers to top up their supply.


This winter, Age UK has heard heart-breaking stories from vulnerable older people who are switching off boilers and turning off appliances for fear of spending too much on energy via their PPM, and from some because they are unsure how to top up their meter. 


One 63-year-old woman told Age UK: “It’s affecting me a lot; I work part time and my health isn’t brilliant and my sister lives with me - she is 70 and her health is poor, and we are struggling to top-up the meters.”


Another older woman said: “At the moment, I can’t get the prescriptions I need for my long-term chronic pain as 90% of my PIP award is going on my prepayment meter that takes 20% off every payment, due to an energy debt accrued during covid.”


A pensioner couple commented: “We are using so much gas and electricity. We’re on prepayment meters and finding it so hard to choose between food and keeping warm.”


Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “Quite rightly, there was public outrage recently when we saw footage of vulnerable people, including pensioners, having prepayment meters forcibly installed in their homes by unscrupulous contractors employed by energy companies. What is less well known is that this disgusting practice is only on hold, which means it could start up again in the future. We think Ofgem should act quickly to ban it for good, so no older person can ever be subjected to such demeaning and frightening treatment again.  


“But there are broader problems with prepayment meters too, the first being that energy typically costs more when bought this way, even though they are mainly used by people on low incomes, who can ill afford a higher price. And worse still, there’s a specific concern about older people and PPMs which we are highlighting today:  that although the energy companies are supposed never to disconnect pensioners from their energy supply over winter, if they have a prepayment meter some older people become so desperate for money that once it runs out they effectively disconnect themselves. The official policy of not disconnecting older people is in place because of the acknowledged health risks to them of becoming very cold, but you can see that if you are an older person with a prepayment meter, the extra protection that’s supposed to be there for you doesn’t really exist.  


“That’s why we at Age UK think it’s time for a ‘prepayment meter amnesty’, whereby anyone who has one can have it removed if this is their wish, at no extra cost to themselves. A regular meter would provide older people with greater protection from the risk of becoming dangerously cold by allowing the ‘no winter disconnection’ policy to be properly fulfilled, and it would usually save them much-needed money too, since their energy would typically cost them less this way.”


According to the latest ONS statistics, three-quarters of over-65s (76 per cent) are putting on more clothes or blankets; two-thirds of over 65s (65 per cent) are using less fuel in their home; half of all over-65s (49 per cent) are only heating the rooms they use; and almost a quarter of over 65s (23 per cent) say they are going to bed earlier to stay warm.[vii]


In the longer term the Charity is calling on the Government to introduce a ‘social tariff’ so that vulnerable people no longer feel forced to self-disconnect or live in cold homes due to the fear of huge bills. An energy social tariff is a government funded discounted energy deal that would make bills 50 per cent cheaper for disabled people, carers and those on lower incomes and in fuel poverty struggling to pay. 


Age UK is urging any older person living on a low income or struggling with their bills to contact Age UK’s free Advice line on 0800 169 65 65 to check they’re receiving all the financial support available. Alternatively, people can visit or contact their local Age UK for information and advice.

Age UK hosts a free and anonymous Benefits Calculator which can provide an estimate of the benefits that people could be entitled to.  For further information about the cost-of-living crisis, please click here.




Ref: amd/hs/ds/el/lf/ew/cw/sk/cb/CA


Notes to editors:


For further information on the cost-of-living crisis and the help available, please visit the ‘Help with the cost of living’ page on Age UK’s website:



[i] An ‘older household’ is defined as a household which includes someone aged over 60 years.

[ii] Age UK analysis of Living Costs and Food Survey 2020-2021. [DOI: 10.5255/UKDA-SN-9022-1]

[iii] Households are defined to be in poverty if their net equivalised after-tax household income (after housing costs) is below 60% of the median income.

[iv] income-related benefits include Universal Credit, Tax Credits, Income Support, Job-Seeking Allowance (JSA), Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Pension Credit.

[v] Age UK analysis of Living Costs and Food Survey 2020-2021. [DOI: 10.5255/UKDA-SN-9022-1

[vi] BEIS, 2022. Fuel poverty detailed tables 2022, data from 2020. Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 28/10/22]. Table 33. This is based on electricity customers, not dual fuel or gas.

[vii] BEIS, 2022. Fuel poverty detailed tables 2022, data from 2020. Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. [Online]. Available here. [Accessed 28/10/22]. Table 33. This is based on electricity customers, not dual fuel or gas.

[vii] Office for National Statistics (ONS). 30 January 2023.  The impact of winter pressures on different population groups in Great Britain: impacts on the cost of living on behaviours and health. Table 1.1. [online] Available here [data collected 22 November to 18 December 2022].

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Last updated: Mar 07 2023

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