Prepayment meter installations banned for over-85s and those with chronic illnesses - here's what you need to know
Energy suppliers have been permanently banned from fitting prepayment meters into the homes of over-85s and those with chronic illnesses under a new code of practice. Firms also need to prove they meet the industry regulator's new code before restarting forced installations, plus they must now visit each home they plan to install meters into in advance.
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. Prepayment meter users pay for their gas and electricity in advance.
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.
Energy firms will need to sign up to the code before they can restart forced installations
Crucially, suppliers will need to prove to Ofgem that they are meeting a set of five conditions before they can start involuntarily fitting prepayment meters again. These include signing up to the new code and providing regular monitoring data to Ofgem on their compliance. Historic meter installations also need to be reviewed with compensation offered where appropriate.
Ofgem's new code of practice also states that only smart prepayment meters, as opposed to traditional meters, can be installed. This is designed to make it easier for energy users to top up, as they can do so online rather than visiting a shop, as well as to access support schemes, such as the Warm Home Discount, and to be moved back onto a standard credit meter in future.
Prepayment meter installations will now be banned entirely for certain households
Under the new code of practice, energy suppliers will not be allowed fit prepayment meters into the homes of certain vulnerable groups. These include households where the people living there are:
- Over 85 and there is no other support in the house. We're checking with Ofgem exactly what "no other support" means and we'll update this story when we know more.
- In need of a continuous supply of energy for health reasons. This includes dependency on ventilators, refrigerated medication or people with severe health issues such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis.
- Suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses, such as cancer, cardiovascular or respiratory disease or organ failure.
- Incapable of topping up the meter due to physical or mental incapacity.
In certain other cases, firms will need to do extra checks before putting you on prepay
Energy firms will need to complete a vulnerability and affordability assessment to fit prepayment meters into homes where there are:
- Children under five.
- People over 75.
- People living with other serious health conditions not detailed above.
- People made temporarily vulnerable by pregnancy or bereavement.
If the assessment finds that you're likely to run out of credit ("self-disconnect") as a result of being switched to prepay, the firm shouldn't proceed.
Suppliers will have new guidelines to follow when fitting prepay meters
- Visiting your home for a "welfare visit" before installing a prepayment meter. This includes if you're already on a smart credit meter and your supplier wants to switch your meter to prepayment mode remotely.
- Making at least 10 attempts to contact you before a prepayment meter is installed.
- Wearing body cameras during all welfare visits and when installing your prepayment meter. This means footage can be audited to ensure firms are sticking to the rules, and to help with any disputes and complaints.
- Providing alternative repayment options to help you clear your debt before fitting a prepayment meter.
- Providing a £30 top-up credit to your meter if your supplier decides to install a prepayment meter. This is to remove the risk of households being left with no supply.
You can read the full code of practice suppliers must adhere to on the Ofgem website.
Your supplier should also let you move off prepayment if you've repaid your debts
If you've repaid all of the debts owed on your prepayment meter, energy firms must also now offer to assess whether you still need your meter - though any required credit checks will still need to be passed before you can switch to a credit meter.
These measures are guidelines for now, but are set to become enforceable rules
This new code of practice is currently voluntary. However, Ofgem says all major suppliers have agreed to it.
The energy regulator adds that it is also consulting on making the rules mandatory and legally enforceable ahead of the coming winter. It says this builds on existing rules and regulations suppliers already have to follow.
Jonathan Brearley, chief executive of Ofgem, 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 prepayment meter.
"If and when involuntary prepayment meters 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."
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