Forced installation of prepayment metres to be banned in homes of over 85s
Energy suppliers have signed up to Ofgem’s new code of practice which must be followed to protect vulnerable customers
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Energy suppliers must make at least 10 attempts to contact a customer and conduct a “site welfare visit” before they can forcibly install a prepayment meter, under new guidelines from regulator Ofgem.
The new rules will see the forcible installation of such meters banned in the homes of customers over 85 in England, Scotland and Wales who do not have someone to care for them, or in the homes of people with severe health issues. Firms will also be required to make representatives were body cameras or audio equipment when fitting meters.
Ofgem has set out a new code of practice which sets out clear procedures that energy suppliers must follow as part of moves to protect vulnerable customers.
Anyone who is forced on to a prepayment meter – either by warrant or remotely – will be given £30 of credit initially to reduce the risk of them losing supply. It also understood that suppliers have been told to identify where meters were wrongfully installed and to return the customer to their previous tariff and offer compensation.
The code makes clear that forced installations should be considered a last resort and it means tougher oversight of which meters are enforced under warrant installations or remotely switched without consent.
The Guardian reports that Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley expects suppliers to “treat their most vulnerable customers as they would want their own loved ones to be treated”.
The changes come after an investigation by The Times revealed how vulnerable customers – including disabled and mentally ill people – were being forced by British Gas on to the pay-as-you-go meters or having their gas switched off.
Debt agents working for British Gas were found to be breaking into the homes of people struggling to pay their energy bills last year to forcibly fit prepayment meters, sparking an outcry. Firms were temporarily banned from installing prepayment energy meters under warrant as a result.
In January, Citizens Advice said an estimated 3.2 million people in the UK were cut off from their electricity supply last year because they ran out of credit, which it says is the equivalent of one person being disconnected every 10 seconds.
The advisory service, which is the consumer watchdog for the energy market, said it saw more people who were unable to top up their prepayment meter in 2022 than in the whole of the last 10 years combined.
Furthermore, more than two million people were being disconnected at least once a month and 19% of those cut off in the past year then spent at least 24 hours without gas or electricity, leaving them unable to turn the heating on or cook a hot meal.
The charity said it was particularly concerned about disabled people and those living with long-term health conditions as its findings showed almost one in five households (18%), including someone in this group who ran out of credit last year, went on to spend two days or more without energy supply.
Citizens Advice added that it had heard from people forced on to a prepayment meter who were unable to top up even though their medication needed to be refrigerated, and a single parent with a young baby who was left in the cold and dark for 48 hours after her supplier switched her to a meter.
A government spokesman said at the time that energy suppliers are expected to do “all they can to help customers” who are struggling to pay their energy bills, adding that “suppliers can only install prepayment meters without consent to recover debt as a last resort”.
The spokesman added: “The regulator Ofgem requires energy suppliers to offer solutions for customers in, or at risk of, debt or disconnection. This includes offering emergency credit to all prepayment meter customers and additional support credit to customers in vulnerable circumstances.”