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Explaining the UK’s ‘Don’t Pay’ movement

Record energy bill price hikes are pushing more members of the public to refuse paying their bills. What does the UK’s ‘Don’t Pay’ energy movement do and how does it work?

This winter, millions of British citizens won’t be able to afford food or bills.

Households have been losing income whilst prices have been rising, partly as a result of the Ukraine crisis and economic uncertainty as a result of Covid-19. National Energy Action estimates 11,400 winter deaths are already caused by cold temperatures every year. By the end of 2022 this number may be much higher.

6.3 million households won’t be able to afford their energy bills. Rates of self-disconnection are up eight -fold, with at least 3600 cases between January and May this year already.

If the government fails to intervene and the energy companies do not reduce prices, a record-breaking number of British citizens will freeze to death in their homes.

Don’t Pay UK is a vehicle for mass non-payment strikes that hopes to prevent this price hike on energy bills. They aim to persuade at least a million people to not pay their energy bills unless the bills are reduced by 1st October 2022.

The movement is targeting energy companies specifically instead of other sectors such as food and rent. There is a clear date to work towards as energy bills are projected to rise past £3200 in October.

According to Don’t Pay UK, even if a fraction of those paying by direct debit stop their payments, it will be enough to put energy companies in serious trouble and force them to negotiate with Don’t Pay UK.

What is the plan for Don’t Pay?

Don’t Pay UK’s plan is a simple three step process.

The first stage is to build support by encouraging over one million people to join. Don’t Pay UK will connect with people through email lists, social media platforms such as Reddit and TikTok, online meetups via Zoom and in-person meetups, as well as spreading the word through distributing flyers, stickers, and other physical advertisements.

They’re also encouraging existing organisations and communities to do all of this too, ‘building this up street by street, estate by estate and city by city’.

Secondly, Don’t Pay UK can only work if there is a critical mass of people pledging to cancel their bills from October 1st, which is why it is aiming for one million pledges. That might sound like a lot, but millions more will already be thinking about whether they’ll be able to pay come winter and afford the other things they need to survive for them and their families.

Finally, participants will cancel their direct debits if the price hike goes ahead. On 1 October, if the government and big energy companies have not reduced bills to an affordable level and if there is critical mass pledged to cancel their bills, Don’t Pay UK members will all cancel their bills on the same day.

What might happen to those who don’t pay their bills?

Don’t Pay UK reassures people that companies won’t just cut off their gas and electricity if they don’t pay their bills. They explain that energy supply disconnections for non-payment are already extremely rare because certain rules govern energy suppliers’ behaviour in non-payment cases.

If you haven’t paid your bill after 28 days, your supplier may contact you about the possibility of disconnecting your gas or electricity supply. Their first port of call will be trying to install a prepayment meter.

Before any further action can be taken, though, they must give you a chance to pay your debt through a payment plan.

The guidance says that, if you can’t reach an agreement with your supplier on clearing your debt, they can apply to a court for a warrant to enter your home to disconnect you.

If you have a smart energy meter then your supplier could be able to disconnect the supply remotely without needing to access it, but they’ll first need to have visited your home to do an assessment of your personal situation and the potential impact of disconnection.

Furthermore, Don’t Pay UK will only begin the non-payment strike if they have power in numbers.

Thus, if energy suppliers decide to try to disconnect people, they’ll be forced to first contact thousands, tens of thousands or even more customers about the possibility of disconnecting supply – but only after 28 days have passed. Then they’ll have to give a chance to set up a payment plan before, in most cases, applying to a court for a warrant. This will cause paralysis and create a months-long backlog for the energy suppliers.

Don’t Pay UK argues that the potency of people power cannot be underestimated. In the UK, a similar mass non-payment plan was successful: in the late 80s and 90s, more than 17 million people refused to pay the Poll Tax, leading to reversal of the ruling government’s harshest measures.

Regarding the current situation, it is not unrealistic that Don’t Pay UK could reach 1 million people to start a non-payment strike.

According to Don’t Pay UK, 1 million can withhold £230 million for 28 days before energy companies can take any action. As the strike continues, people can withhold another £230 million each month, possibly even more as the weather gets colder through winter, forcing people to use more energy and as more people start joining the strike. With 1 million people, more than £1.4 billion by the end of winter may be withheld.

The Ukraine Invasion has shown that this market is already unstable as 31 energy companies have ceased trading since 2021. Therefore, Don’t Pay UK reasons that they have a high chance of succeeding with the strike.