Self-Disconnections – 2 February 2023

The levels of self-disconnection from power across Scotland and Britain were exposed in Parliament last week, and they’re staggeringly high.

In the third quarter of last year, the figures recorded 66,000 households in Scotland and 660,000 across Britain with smart meters had self-disconnected at least once. The technology’s able to record these incidents and they are not simply power cuts but switching off entirely.

“Self-disconnection” is a euphemism that has entered our lexicon. But they’re weasel words, as false and misleading as the phrases “legitimate targets” or “collateral damage”, used by terrorists or the military to mask the real horror of their actions. A construction worker or a family going to a wedding are neither, instead they’re human beings needlessly slaughtered.

Similarly, self-disconnection is used to mask the reality of what it is, it’s the denial of heat and power with all the misery that brings. It’s not a matter of free personal choice. It’s the consequence of poverty and circumstance. For sure, we’re all switching lights off and turning down the dial, but this goes far beyond that. It’s being denied energy at all, and with it the needs it meets from simply keeping warm to washing the kids’ clothes.

Now those figures are shocking enough but they are simply the tip of the iceberg for two reasons. Firstly, that was quarter three, which was before prices rose further and winter kicked in. The pressures upon folk have multiplied since then and the need for heat has only increased.

Secondly, the figures are only for those on smart meters. They don’t detail the numbers for those on what are called legacy pre-payment meters. Those are the old-fashioned meters that are fed by coin, card or topped up by some other form of purchase.

The numbers on that regulatory power source amount to just under 300,000 in Scotland and just over two million across Britain. The ‘self-disconnection’ figures for them aren’t known as the technology cannot record it. Yet many, if not all, of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society were using them before prices rocketed. And if you were already struggling with fuel poverty before this all started then God help you. The likelihood, indeed certainty, is that the figure for self-disconnections will be at least double, if not even more.

In questions to the minister, I sought for the forced installation of smart meters on a pre-payment tariff and for the perversity of those on such meters being forced to pay higher standing charges to be stopped forthwith. All that requires is a direction by ministers to industry regulator Ofgem which can ensure that these practices by energy providers are ended. It only needs a ministerial letter.

But no. This disgrace to a civilized society is being allowed to continue unabated, all for the lack of a government request that providers desist from forced switching. That’s simply not good enough. The higher charges remain, and the stable door has been open for far too long.

Instead, a social tariff, as applies in many European countries, and offering lower prices for those most in need is being looked at. But this should happen now as the need’s there as the figures show. Weasel words can’t disguise the cruelty that’s being enforced on hundreds of thousands of homes.