I agreed, and the needy person texted me with this message.
“Universal Credit are taking 30 per cent of my benefits off my money and I’m stuck now because I have had to go into isolation with three children because my three-year-old is presenting Covid symptoms.
“I have no money and no food with the holidays coming up. I’ve spoken to many food banks that won’t assist me and say I need a referral. But I don’t have any professionals involved. Would be grateful for any help please.”
There’s an insight into a fairly normal situation that shouldn’t exist in modern England.
So I took her a week’s shopping and she emailed her utility bills for me to have a look at. Her supplier is indeed deducting £129 a month in electricity, directly from her benefits. This is in addition to an arrears repayment of £20.
I’m trying to determine if this is normal. For a start, the average bill for a three-bedroom house is £52 a month, this is two and a half times that. The lady says there’s an issue with the meter, it’s faulty, and has told her supplier this, but they are continuing to charge her an unfeasible amount.
She also has a gas bill of £47 a month being deducted, she lives in a small council house semi; it seems to me there’s almost no way the electricity bill can be that high unless she’s mining Bitcoin and I’m pretty sure she isn’t.
So she’s in a situation where her utility supplier is debiting her benefits, without her consent, for an amount that seems improbably high and she has no way to prevent it. According to her, the benefits agencies also have no way to stop payments being taken.
I’m trying to engage the supplier in conversation about this. It seems like they’re taking money they aren’t entitled to and forcing a family into real hardship to the point where they are needing help because they literally can’t afford food.
What’s more, it seems there’s no way to prevent them from deducting the money. It’s not like a direct debit from a bank account, that can simply be cancelled, or disputed and therefore refunded, as it’s covered by the direct debit guarantee.
Here the funds are being deducted at source, from benefits, and between the rock of the Benefits Agency and the hard place of a utility company staffed by people working from home with no means to do anything helpful it’s little wonder the lady in question is suffering from the squeeze. I tried to phone her supplier and was quickly placed in a telephonic limbo.
If energy companies have the ability to charge people directly from benefits, there’s a risk of creating waves of poverty across the UK. I can see why the providers would hope to be able to get paid directly from the benefits agencies, but from an ethical and human rights perspective, that’s definitely not an option, especially when the bills seem excessively high and the customer can’t afford to eat.
The energy supplier in question was invited to respond.
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