Personal Finance

Energy firms allowed to force fit prepayment meters again - the rules that block them

Three energy firms can now resume the force-fitting of prepayment meters in a practice that was banned for being unfair.

EDF, Octopus and Scottish Power have met a set of conditions set out by energy regulator Ofgem.

All energy companies were banned from the 'involuntary' instalment of prepayment meters in February 2023 after an investigation by The Times highlighted British Gas agents were forcing their way into the homes of vulnerable people, which is against Ofgem rules.

Prepayment meters see users pay for their gas and electricity up front rather than after they have used it, often for a more expensive price. They are used as a way to avoid spending more than someone can afford, but they are also forcibly installed by energy companies as a last resort when a customer is struggling to pay their bills.

Following the ban, the three energy companies have conducted internal audits to identify prepayment meters wrongfully installed before February 2023, and offered compensation and meter removal to those affected, Ofgem said.

Any suppliers meeting these conditions and allowed to restart involuntary instalments must now send regular monitoring data to Ofgem so it can look into any red flags. The move has sparked fury from campaigners who say it will traumatise vulnerable people.

Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said: "It is outrageous that energy firms are seeking to use the courts to force people onto prepayment meters in the middle of winter.

"We still have grave concerns about the processes energy firms have in place for assessing vulnerabilities."

Jonathan Bean of Fuel Poverty Action added: “We are horrified Ofgem has taken the cruel and dangerous decision to allow Scottish Power and others to break into homes and limit energy supplies in the middle of winter. This will leave many people traumatised and cold.”

Prepayment meter installation rules

Under Ofgem's rules, energy companies need to make at least 10 attempts to contact a customer before a prepayment meter is installed, and carry out a welfare assessment.

Prepayment meters cannot be forcibly installed in households where:

  • The customer is over 75, unless they have someone younger living in the property.
  • A child under the age of two lives in the property.
  • A member of the household has a terminal illness or conditions negatively affected by a cold home.

Suppliers must also assess the suitability of a prepayment meter when a member of the household:

  • Is 5 and under
  • Has other serious medical/health conditions such as neurological disease, such as Parkinson’s, Huntingdon’s, Cerebral Palsy, respiratory conditions (COPD) and mobility limiting conditions includingOsteoporosis, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis
  • Has serious mental/developmental health conditions, such as clinical depression, Alzheimer’s, dementia, learning difficulties, Schizophrenia
  • Has a temporary situation, such as pregnancy, bereavement.

Other prepayment meter rules:

  • Energy suppliers must first offer a payment plan for those struggling to pay their bills. They must also discuss the options to pay off debt.
  • Energy suppliers must give billpayers at least 28 days to pay back debt. If the payments are still not met they can say they will move the billpayer onto a prepayment meter.
  • The supplier can't enforce a prepayment meter switch if the billpayer is disputing how much is owed.
  • Those in very vulnerable situations can't be forced to have a prepayment meter if they don't want one.
  • Energy suppliers must give seven days' notice to install a gas meter and seven working days to fit an electricity meter. They are allowed to charge the cost of fitting the meter, although this is not common practice.

NimbleFins has a guide with options available if you're struggling to pay your energy bills.

Suppliers should try to come up with a payment plan, break in payments, or offer you a grant from their hardship fund.

Tim Jarvis, director general for markets at Ofgem, said: "We've made clear that suppliers must exhaust all other options before considering forced installation of a prepayment meter, and consumers can help themselves by reaching out to their supplier as soon as possible if they think they won't be able to pay their bill, so payment options can be discussed.

"While nobody wants to see the practices uncovered last year repeated, we also know that allowing households to build up unsustainable amounts of debt isn't the right thing to do either."

National outrage

When fury first erupted over the practice, it was feared magistrates could be waiving through thousands of warrant applications at a time. More than 32,000 warrant to enter homes were issued in January 2023 alone, the Guardian found.

NimbleFins previously reported British Gas was remotely switching many smart meter customers onto prepayment meters, often leaving customers without power for days or weeks.

Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty said: "Last winter, we all saw that the rotten core of debt collection practice in the energy sector was not just a case of one bad apple - the rules were simply not being followed.

"As the temporary ban on force-fitting comes to an end, people need reassurance from suppliers that they won't be wrongly forced on to a meter when there's clear evidence they shouldn't be.

"Ofgem must proactively monitor suppliers and act swiftly if there are any suspicions rules are not being followed."

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Helen Barnett

Helen is a journalist, editor and copywriter with 15 years' experience writing across print and digital publications. She previously edited the Daily Express website and has won awards as a reporter. Read more here.


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