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Energy suppliers warned to stop force-fitting prepayment meters before offering more support – what to do if you're unfairly switched

Energy companies have been called on to voluntarily stop the practice of forcibly moving customers to prepayment meters without taking every step to support households struggling to pay bills first. The message has been put forward in a letter to firms from business and energy secretary, Grant Shapps. It follows a reported surge in households being moved to prepayment meters over recent months.

If you've fallen behind on paying your energy bills, your supplier can force you onto a prepayment meter (where you have to pay in advance) to recover the debt that's built up. While it doesn't need your permission to do this, the supplier can only put you on prepay where it is safe and practical. We've information below on the processes your supplier must follow, and what to do if you think you've been unfairly or unsafely switched.

But Mr Shapps says energy suppliers are not acting fairly, and warned that he will "name and shame" the worst offenders. He said: "Suppliers are clearly jumping the gun and moving at-risk customers onto prepayment meters before offering them the support they are entitled to – I simply cannot believe that every possible alternative has been exhausted in all these cases.

"Rather than immediately reaching for a new way to extract money out of customers, I want suppliers to stop this practice and lend a more sympathetic ear, offering the kind of forbearance and support that a vulnerable customer struggling to pay should be able to expect."

Earlier this week, one of the biggest energy suppliers – British Gas – said it would not remotely switch any smart meter customers to prepayment meters this winter if they are struggling with bills (unless requested), but it didn't commit to halting the forced installation of prepayment meters in person.

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.

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.

Unfair or unsafe switch? Here's 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 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 – 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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