Iain Macwhirter: Don't refuse to pay energy bills. They'll get you in the end

·3-min read
Iain Macwhirter: Don't refuse to pay energy bills. They'll get you in the end
Iain Macwhirter: Don't refuse to pay energy bills. They'll get you in the end

I HAVE much sympathy for the Don't Pay UK campaign which now claims to have 100,000 supporters. When Bulb phoned me in April, months before the present crisis broke, to tell me my direct debit was going to increase from £104 to £196 I said: 'No way, Jose.'

I cancelled my direct debit, and opted to pay monthly. Mind you, when it comes to January and I get a bill for £400 or £500, I'll have the means to pay it. Most will not.

This is the problem with middle class radicals urging people to refuse to pay en masse, which bizarrely include the right wing columnist Katie Hopkins and the food campaigner Jack Monroe, (who famously sued Hopkins for defamation). They surely won't suffer any legal penalty.

Though some non-payers do. I interviewed the anti-poll tax campaigner Tommy Sheridan live from Saughton Prison for the BBC's 1992 general election results programme.

Actually, he was in jail for obstructing a warrant sale, the humiliating public sale of a debtor's possessions. That is one penalty Scottish energy non-payers will not face this time, thanks to MSP Tommy Sheridan's 2001 Abolition of Poindings and Warrant Sales Act. A ground-breaking private members' Bill back when the Scottish Parliament did stuff.

But absence of poindings doesn't mean non-payers get away Scot-free. Four million people in Britain are on pre-payment meters, which means they freeze if they don't pay.

The energy companies can't cut off non-payers, but they can and will install prepayment meters in their homes and add the debt to the pay-as-you-go tariff. Poor families could also suffer loss of credit rating, arrestment of wages and, in theory, jail – though that's most unlikely. Everyone needs energy so debts will simply be recovered in future bills.

Advocates of non-payment want to emulate the anti-poll tax campaign, Can't Pay, Won't Pay, in the early 1990s which led to riots. That certainly hastened the abolition of the hated tax. Moreover, in 1998, many non-payers in England were released from their obligation to repay – though councils in Scotland were still pursing poll tax arrears a decade later.

Granted, if millions of people say they simply can't or won't pay their energy bills, Bulb and co have a problem. They'd be overwhelmed. But don't expect any debt amnesty. Private companies can't write off unpaid bills without going bust.

Serves them right, you say. But it isn't Bulb and co who're the real villains here. It is the energy wholesalers, BP, Shell etc, who are making windfall profits. And anyway, it's wiser to wait.

In France, President Macron has effectively frozen prices and promised that consumers will not pay more than 4% above last year's bill. A similar “furlough” arrangement should happen here. In the meantime, people should not refuse to pay their bills as a political act. Ask for arbitration instead – that really gums up the works