Amidst the worst cost-of-living crisis for decades, parallels with the 70s abound. But not so much with the poll tax non-payment campaign of the 80s and 90s. That’s about to change.

A campaign called Don’t Pay wants a million people to cancel their direct debits to energy companies when the next price hike is announced on October 1, with the aim of forcing government action to help households facing financial ruin.

Its logic is powerful. “Even if a fraction of those paying by direct debit stop our payments, it will be enough to put energy companies in serious trouble, and they know this. We want to bring them to the table and force them to end this crisis.” The anonymous organisers cite the poll tax non-payment campaign “when more than 17 million people refused to pay, helping bring down the government and reversing its harshest measures.”

There’s no question the protest is a serious proposition.

For one thing, the tally of signatories apparently stood at 100k last week. Meanwhile, online forums show comments like “They can’t prosecute everyone if we all stop paying.” “If the choice is between food for kids and boosting the profits of BP & Shell to five times what we paid them last year, it’s a no brainer.”

One commentator talked of a friend who’s preparing to pay only what she paid last year and is “ready to face the consequences.” But perhaps the strongest “proof of life” for the Don’t Pay campaign is the welter of warnings from official sources this weekend.

The head of energy regulator Ofgem urged people not to join the energy bill strike in an interview on Radio 4. Jonathan Brearley said: “ First of all, it will drive up costs for everyone across the board. And secondly, if you are facing difficulty in paying your bill, the best thing you can do is get in touch with your energy company.”

Wow. Maybe it’s not surprising Mr Brearley doesn’t get it. This time last year, when his “watchdog” announced the first price cap hike, he accepted a bonus of £15k on top of his £300k pay package. So, he’s pretty well insulated from the price rises Ofgem has waved through – and from the criticism, that a private company which allowed so many unfit companies into the energy market might well be facing disqualification or even jail right now.

In fact, Ofgem’s lax management is responsible for a charge on our energy bills that’s actually higher than the much maligned green levy. Each consumer is paying more than £100 for the 29 energy companies that failed earlier this year but should have been stopped from entering the market by Ofgem.

According to the FT in April, companies that took on the customers of smaller failed suppliers claimed £1.84bn from Ofgem to cover their costs – a sum passed on to customers through a £68 charge on every household energy bill. But the recent Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report says failures to date are due to add £96 to energy bills – so there’s probably another £28 bill coming.


Meanwhile, Bulb – with 1.7 million customers too large to be taken on by any other company – went bust but is still on the go. The UK Government hasn’t decided whether to slip those costs onto energy bills or general taxation. If Bulb is financed by energy consumers, then that single company failure will cost each of us £75. So, each household is paying roughly £100-170 to pay for market failure. Ofgem’s failure.

Meanwhile the green levy was £153. Outrage and headlines about one. A discreet veil drawn over the other. No wonder consumers are furious.

Britain’s energy market is hopelessly broken, but no politician plans more than a quick, sticking-plaster fix. And Ofgem’s chief executive thinks he has the moral authority to stop consumers cancelling direct debits? His sheer gall is enough to make you go online and join the campaign pronto

Meanwhile, money-saving expert Martin Lewis has acknowledged that the Don’t Pay campaign is gathering momentum; "We need the government to get a handle on [energy bills], because once it starts becoming socially acceptable not to pay, people will stop and you're not going to cut everyone off."

But angry gestures aside, could an energy bills boycott trigger real change? Listen to the candidates who would be PM and there’s no urgency at all. Bills of three thousand, four thousand pounds? Inflation of 9%, 13% – more? They’re all just numbers to feed into meaningless promises about more help which cannot possibly be delivered beside tax cuts. The current political preoccupation with 150k well-heeled Surrey pensioners means the October 1st protest and cancelled payments might fall on deaf ears – or it might mean nothing less than financial chaos will trigger the emergency government action that campaigners like Martin Lewis are demanding.

What about the personal consequences? Suppliers could appoint debt collectors or get a warrant to enter homes and fit pre-payment card meters. But the 8.5 million households heading for fuel poverty by the end of this year may ask themselves if that’s not already on the cards.

It’s true that the cost of more energy firms going bust through withheld payments will just go onto our bills. It’s also true that the poorest folk aren’t really part of the Don’t Pay campaign, since they’re already on pre-payment meters with higher-than-average price hikes and flat-rate standing charges that must be paid, whether meters are disconnected or empty.

Essentially that standing charge is the poll tax of our time, and it’ll still be there if the Don’t Pay campaign succeeds.

But that won’t stop the idea of disruption gathering support, as politicians north and south of the border simply change the subject, keep cost-of-living debates out of party conference agendas and duck responsibility for the unfolding crisis.

If mass non-payment of impossible bills is ‘irresponsible’ in the light of record oil profits – what’s a better solution? Energy consumers need to hear the answer – now.

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