Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Banning Forced Prepayment Meter Installations in Homes of Over-85s


The regulator Ofgem has announced new rules which will ban the forcible installation of prepayment energy meters in homes of customers over 85. Suppliers will also have to give customers more chances to clear their debts before making them switch. This comes after debt agents for British Gas broke into some people’s homes to fit meters, causing an outcry.

Campaigners have said that the new rules do not go far enough and vulnerable people could still face forced installations. Switching people onto prepayment meters without their consent has become more common since energy prices rose. It can be done by warrant or remotely via smart meters, with suppliers claiming it may help indebted customers manage their spending. However, campaigners argue that prepayment meters – which must be topped up – leave vulnerable customers at risk of running out of credit and losing access to light and heat.

In response to the Times newspaper’s expose of British Gas’ practices, Ofgem placed a temporary ban on all forcible installations. On Tuesday, the regulator announced that all energy suppliers in England, Scotland and Wales have signed up to a code of conduct which sets out the practices they should adhere to when fitting the meters.

Under the rules, suppliers will now have to make at least 10 attempts to contact a customer and conduct a “site welfare visit” before a prepayment meter is installed. Representatives fitting them will also have to wear body cameras or audio equipment to make sure the rules are followed. In addition, suppliers will not be allowed to fit meters for customers over 85 or anyone with a terminal illness, as well as those with certain health conditions such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and sickle cell disease. Those forced onto a prepayment meter – either by warrant or remotely – will be given £30 of credit initially to reduce the risk of them losing supply.

Suppliers have also been told to identify where meters were wrongfully installed and to return the customer to their previous tariff and offer compensation. However, there are concerns that the rules will only protect the highest risk individuals, with medium risk individuals such as elderly people aged between 75 and 84, parents of children under five years old, pregnant women and people with Alzheimer’s disease among other conditions still potentially facing forced installations.

Simon Francis, coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said the new rules “do not go far enough”. Tom Marsland, the policy manager at the disability equality charity Scope, said the rules will “still allow energy companies to install prepayment meters in some disabled households”. The charity is calling for an outright ban.

An estimated 600,000 people were forced to switch to prepayment meters after struggling to pay their bills in 2022, according to a Citizens Advice report in January. In March, the government brought charges paid by prepayment meter customers in line with customers who pay by direct debit, meaning more than four million households are set to save £45 a year on energy bills from 1 July. Suppliers have called for the introduction of social tariffs to tackle unaffordable energy prices, with Ofgem describing them as a good option and saying they are being discussed with ministers.

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