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Surge in energy firms switching people onto prepay meters remotely – your rights and how to protect yourself from a forced switch

If you're struggling to pay your energy bills and have built up a debt on your account, your supplier may want to move you onto a prepayment meter so they can collect repayments over time. But prepay is about £70 a year more expensive than direct debit (on typical dual-fuel use), and there's an added risk of being cut off from heat or power if you run out of credit. Below, we explain your rights to refuse prepayment.

Despite earlier calls from and charities including Citizens Advice, National Energy Action and StepChange for more safeguards for consumers this winter, official figures show there's been a rise in suppliers remotely switching people with smart meters onto prepay, with 60,000 of these switches in the past three months alone (though this figure also includes customers voluntarily choosing to go on prepay).

With standard credit meters, you pay for energy after you've used it. But with prepayment meters, you have to pay in advance – so if you don't have the cash, you may not be able to heat your home or switch the lights on. In extreme cases, the forced switch to prepay has left some people without power for days or even weeks, according to industry regulator Ofgem.

The watchdog has now written to all suppliers telling them to look into the issue urgently and reminding them of their obligations. The watchdog says it "won't hesitate to take action" where it finds failings, adding that "standards of service across the industry need to improve".

If you're struggling to pay for energy, make sure you're not missing out on any support you're entitled to – see our full Energy bill help guide for a comprehensive list, plus where to go for one-on-one support.

First, always speak to your supplier as early as possible – it has to help if you're struggling

If you're falling behind with your energy bills, and finding yourself struggling to pay or building up debt on your account, the best thing to do is contact your supplier as soon as possible. Under rules from regulator Ofgem, your supplier has to help you – usually by negotiating a payment plan that you can afford.

There are a range of other options suppliers could offer, including payment reviews, breaks or reductions, more time to pay or access to hardship funds.

What help you can get is decided on a case-by-case basis, but – crucially – engaging with your supplier means you're less likely to be forced onto prepayment, as this should be a last resort. So get in touch with your supplier as soon as possible.

You DON'T have a right to refuse a prepay meter – but your supplier can only put you on prepay if it's 'safe and reasonably practicable'

If you've fallen behind on paying your energy bills, your supplier can force you onto prepay to recover the debt that's built up. It doesn't need your permission to do this, and you don't have an automatic right to refuse.

However, the supplier can only put you on prepay where it is "safe, practical and easy for you to use and get to [the meter]". The exact same rules apply whether your supplier is physically installing a new prepay meter in your home or switching your existing smart meter into prepay mode.

When deciding whether it's safe and practical for you to have a prepay meter, your supplier must consider a range of factors, including:

  • Whether you're able to understand and operate the prepay meter, including topping up (for example, whether you have a physical or mental disability preventing you from being able to use a prepay meter);
  • How far you live from a shop that lets you top up with cash (if you want or need to use cash to top up);
  • Whether you need a continuous supply for health reasons, such as having medical equipment that needs a constant electricity supply;
  • The physical location of your meter (for example, whether it's placed high on a wall, outside or in a room to which you don't have access).

If it's not safe or practical for you to be on prepay for any of these reasons (or others), then your supplier shouldn't put you on prepay. If it does, you can complain and ask to be switched back. 

Your supplier must follow the correct process to put you on prepay

This includes:

  • Having a valid reason for the switch. This can include recovering a debt you owe the supplier after falling behind with paying your bills.
  • Communicating clearly. Your supplier should tell you if it plans to put you on prepay, give its reasons for the decision and outline any other options you may have.
  • Providing at least seven working days' notice. If you're on a smart meter, you shouldn't find it being switched into prepay mode out of the blue.
  • Taking into account whether you're vulnerable. If so, and your vulnerability means it would be unsafe or impractical for you to be on prepay, the switch shouldn't go ahead.
  • Getting a court warrant (in some cases). This is only relevant where you have non-smart meters (so the supplier needs to physically install new meters) and you've refused to communicate with your supplier about a repayment plan.

Unsafe or unfair switch? How to complain

If your supplier hasn't followed the correct process, or has put you on prepay when it shouldn't have, you should raise a formal complaint. You can do this by contacting your supplier directly, or by using the free Resolver complaints tool (which covers most suppliers).

If you've already tried contacting the firm and it's been more than eight weeks since you lodged your formal complaint (or you've received a deadlock letter), you can then take it to the free Energy Ombudsman, an independent body that handles disputes between consumers and energy firms.

Check if you can join the Priority Services Register – it could protect you

The Priority Services Register (PSR) is a free support service for people in vulnerable situations. You can sign up for it through your energy supplier.

Joining the PSR doesn't necessarily mean your supplier can't put you on prepay – but it is an extra layer of protection, because your supplier must consider whether your circumstances make it unsafe or impractical for you to be on prepay.

You can join the PSR if any of the following apply to you:

  • You've reached your state pension age.
  • You are disabled or have a long-term medical condition.
  • You are recovering from an injury.
  • You have a hearing or sight condition.
  • You have a mental health condition.
  • You are pregnant or have children under five.
  • You have extra communication needs (such as if you don't speak or read English well).

You might still be able to register for other reasons if your situation isn't listed. For example, if you need short-term support after a stay in hospital.

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