Prepayment meter rules ‘fail to deal’ with energy debt mountain, charity warns
Charities and campaign groups have warned that new rules for energy suppliers which restrict the forced use of prepayment meters do not go far enough and must be firmly enforced.
The End Fuel Poverty Coalition said the plans “fail to deal” with concerns over energy debt relief “for those most in need”.
On Tuesday, energy watchdog Ofgem revealed that household suppliers in England, Scotland and Wales have agreed to a new code of practice which includes a ban on forcibly installing prepayment meters (PPMs) in the homes of people over the age of 85.
Energy firms will now only be able to force-fit prepayment meters if they stick to a set of voluntary restrictions.
PPMs have been in the spotlight after some energy suppliers, including British Gas, were caught breaking into the homes of people struggling to pay their bills to forcibly install them.
The tougher rules also mean that energy suppliers and their contractors must make at least 10 attempts to contact a customer and carry out a site welfare visit before a PPM can be installed.
Suppliers will also need to avoid forced installations where a “continuous supply” of energy is needed for health reasons, such as for the terminally ill.
Energy firms will also be required to make representatives fitting meters wear body cameras or audio equipment.
Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley said: “Ofgem’s new voluntary code of practice is a minimum standard that clearly sets out steps all suppliers must take before moving to a PPM.
“If and when involuntary PPMs are used, it must be as a last resort, and customers in vulnerable situations will be given the extra care and consideration they deserve, over and above the rules already in place, by suppliers – something that has clearly not always been happening.”
The new rules are a voluntary code of practice for suppliers and the regulator said it will consult on whether the voluntary code of practice can be made legally binding ahead of the next winter.
Suppliers will also now need to place £30 worth of credit on any meter they install with a warrant.
Cases must also be reassessed by suppliers once a customer has repaid debts owed.
Disability equality charity Scope is among those calling for the restrictions to go further in clamping down on suppliers.
Tom Marsland, the charity’s policy manager, said: “This is a welcome step forward from Ofgem. It will now be clearer when the rules are broken, and remote switching will be included.
“But this process will still allow energy companies to install prepayment meters in some disabled households.
“We want to see the forced installation of meters and remote switching banned outright for disabled people.”
Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, raised concerns that the new rules will not address financial concerns.
“There are really vulnerable groups which have been omitted from its full protection and we have serious concerns about how it will be implemented, such as how people will prove their medical conditions without being humiliated by an energy firm health inspection,” he said.
“The plans also fail to deal with the elephant in the room – the growing household energy debt mountain.
“This was the Government’s opportunity to take meaningful action and introduce targeted debt relief for those most in need.
“It has failed to do so and seems to have given in to energy industry demands to let them go back to the bad old days of forcing prepayment meters on to customers in distress.”
Energy Secretary Grant Shapps welcomed the announcement and called on Ofgem and suppliers to “put these words into action, so struggling families never again face such mistreatment”.
Shadow climate and net zero secretary Ed Miliband said: “Today’s action on prepayment meters is not good enough.
“It is wrong that these rules still allow those with conditions like Alzheimer’s, the recently bereaved, those over 75, those with young children to be forced on to prepayment meters.”
Meanwhile, Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty said: “It’s now up to suppliers to follow the rules and for Ofgem to crack down quickly on any sign of bad practice.
“The regulator must also act swiftly to make this voluntary code mandatory.”
In February, an investigation by The Times revealed that 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 supply switched off.
Firms were then temporarily banned from installing prepayment energy meters under warrant.
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