Smart technologies for disciplining the poor

6 min readJan 23
A row of gas meters, black and white photograph by MIKI Yoshihito
Smart meters by MIKI Yoshihito

There are millions of energy prepayment meters in Britain. Over three million households with prepayment meters were cut off at least once last year. 18% of prepayment customers were cut off for two days or more. Meanwhile, the number of people being forced to switch to prepayment because they’ve run up arrears is surging — 660,000 households last year (and we just learnt that one of the biggest British suppliers, British Gas, permits bayliffs to break into people’s homes to install the meters). Parts of the media have bought into the energy industry’s story that prepayment meters are in some way benign, that they protect poor customers from getting into trouble. This morning, a BBC journalist on Today said:

The introduction of prepayment meters was meant to ensure that vulnerable people could not have their gas or electricty cut off. Paying in advance would mean, it was said, they couldn’t get themselves into financial difficulties.

Today, BBC Radio 4, 12 January 2023

It’s a bizarre assertion. Prepayment meters don’t protect customers at all. They protect suppliers and discipline customers. Once it’s become clear to your electricity company that you’re struggling or you’ve missed a payment (or even that you might miss one), it becomes urgent to get you onto a prepayment meter sharpish. For a supplier, switching the customer to prepayment ‘de-risks’ the relationship, removing the possibility of default and the need to chase you for payment, appoint debt collectors etc. Moving a customer who’s in financial difficulty to a prepayment meter switches them from potential liability to cast-iron, zero-risk asset.

Free money for shareholders

Also, to state the obvious, a customer with a prepayment meter pays in advance. Without even knowing how many prepayment meters there are in the UK (this number doesn’t seem to be available) or what the average credit held on an account is (likewise), it’s easy to calculate that, with interest rates for cash held over night currently at well over 3%, the energy firms are making tens of millions annually, in bank interest alone, from these deposits…


Grizzled web old-timer (some say just grizzled), a trustee at the brilliant Poppy Academy Trust in the UK, a crummy poet and a volunteer at Watford Refugees…