Energy suppliers suspend forced prepay meter installations – what to do if you've been switched unfairly
Energy companies have agreed to stop forced installations of prepayment meters, industry regulator Ofgem has confirmed. This includes the remote switching of smart meters into prepay mode, as well as physical meter installations through the use of court warrants. It follows reports that some households were being forcibly switched despite being clearly vulnerable.
In a letter to energy firms published in February, Ofgem said a temporary ban would be in place until 31 March. However, Ofgem has now said the ban will continue beyond this date and won't be lifted until energy firms establish they are acting in accordance with a new code of practice.
Ofgem is also undertaking a 'market review' into how prepay meters are handled across the industry, and it's called on suppliers to proactively check if any have been installed incorrectly and, if so, to consider removing them and offering compensation where appropriate.
The intervention follows an undercover The Times investigation, which revealed how some debt collectors working on behalf of British Gas were allegedly breaking into people's homes to install prepayment meters while ignoring signs of extreme vulnerabilities.
If you're struggling to pay for energy, see our Energy bill help guide for a full list of support you're entitled to, plus where to go for one-on-one support.
'Forcibly moving someone onto a prepay meter is a proxy for cutting them off'
Speaking to Andrew Marr on LBC in February, MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis said moving customers onto prepay meters meant many would essentially self-disconnect from gas and electricity, adding that energy firms shouldn't be let off the hook if they blame third-party contractors for any failings. Watch the full clip below:
Your supplier should have followed the correct process to put you on prepay
- 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.
What does being 'vulnerable' mean?
Regulator Ofgem says there are many factors that can make customers vulnerable or put them in a vulnerable situation. You could be considered vulnerable if you:
- Have reached your state pension age;
- Are disabled or have a long-term medical condition;
- Are recovering from an injury;
- Have a hearing or sight condition;
- Have a mental health condition;
- Are pregnant or have children under five;
- Have extra communication needs (such as if you don't speak or read English well); or if you
- Cannot safeguard your welfare or the welfare of other members in your household because of your age, health, disability or severe financial insecurity.
You might be in a vulnerable situation for other reasons if your situation isn’t listed. For example, if you need short-term support after a stay in hospital or have financial difficulties. If you aren't sure, always speak to your supplier and explain your situation.
Unfair or unsafe switch? Here's how to complain
There is no formal appeals process for forced prepayment meter switches. 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 contacted the company 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 in the future – 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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