Nearly a quarter of energy vouchers, designed to help the most vulnerable households with their gas and electricity bills, still have not been redeemed, according to the latest government figures.
Failure to receive the energy support payment could “be the difference between having a warm home, keeping the lights on, eating a warm meal or not”, according to the charity Citizens Advice.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) data showed that 24% of vouchers for consumers on prepayment meters (PPM) in Great Britain remained unclaimed.
This is despite increased uptake of the vouchers, which hit its highest level in January, with 1.7m used last month alone, up 130,000 from December.
The energy bills support scheme aims to ease the burden of rising energy costs over the winter.
The government’s energy price guarantee reduces bills for people on direct debits. The vouchers, targeted at households that have a prepayment meter, are worth £400, paid in six monthly instalments of £66. However, a significant number of the vouchers still have not been redeemed, with many lost, delayed or unclaimed.
The 1.9m unredeemed vouchers mean that households have missed out on £125m of support since the scheme launched.
Gillian Cooper, head of energy policy at Citizens Advice, welcomed the increase in redemptions, but said too many people were still not benefiting. She said: “Suppliers must make it as easy as possible for people to get the help they’re entitled to. This includes reissuing vouchers that haven’t been received and ensuring anyone without online access still receives help in a way that’s convenient for them.”
The Guardian revealed at the start of December that as many as 500,000 of the UK’s most vulnerable families have been left without help since October.
Households with a prepayment meter are required to redeem their vouchers at the Post Office or PayPoint. Energy suppliers are responsible for telling prepayment customers how to access government support through the vouchers. Suppliers are also obliged to make several attempts to contact customers who have not redeemed them.
The consumer champion Martin Lewis previously joined up with Which?, Age UK, Citizens Advice and National Energy Action to urge the government to investigate low redemption rates, and to raise awareness of the scheme.
Ministers said they had undertaken a communications campaign, including advertising across community radio, social media and national magazines, and continue to urge suppliers to support customers.
There is a large variation in redemption rates with different energy suppliers, from 68% to 87%. E Gas & Electricity and Octopus were the best-performing electricity suppliers, whose prepayment meter customers respectively redeemed 87% and 85% of their vouchers.
While suppliers with the biggest numbers of prepayment meter customers – including Centrica (British Gas), E.On, Ovo, EDF and Scottish Power – have all improved redemption rates, some continued to have the lowest level.
Energy security secretary Grant Shapps said: “Many households are yet to redeem the vouchers they are entitled to and I want energy companies to redouble their efforts to get the support to those who need it.”
There are also regional variations in voucher redemption rates. The lowest level of voucher uptake was in London, where only two-fifths (42%) of eligible households had claimed them, followed by Scotland (32%), particularly Edinburgh and Glasgow, and south-east England (31%).
Prepayment meters have been in the spotlight in recent weeks, after energy regulator Ofgem responded to a report in the Times that debt agents working on behalf of British Gas forcibly installed prepayment meters at the homes of customers who had fallen behind on payments.
There is now a ban on the installation of prepayment meters under warrant, which is scheduled to last until 31 March.