Ministers told to show leadership on prepayment meters scandal

Ministers must show further leadership and ban the forced transfer of homes onto prepayment meters, according to campaigners.

In a letter sent to the Secretary of State for Energy Security & Net Zero, Claire Coutinho MP, and copied to the Minister for Consumer Energy and the Lord Chancellor, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition has claimed that to date, people across government and industry have tried to “wash their hands of responsibility.”

The latest revelations in the Times on forced prepayment meters (PPMs) showed agents for Scottish Power securing warrants to break into the homes of mothers with young children to force them onto PPMs.

Concerns were raised about Scottish Power by the House of Commons Energy Security Committee after a letter on the issue to MPs from the Coalition. Scottish Power is among the firms being considered by Ofgem as potentially being in a fit state to restart the forced transfer of homes onto PPMs in the coming weeks.

However, according to the letter now sent to the Minister, the Times investigation raises concerns that: “the checks and systems Scottish Power have in place are not fit for purpose. 

“Given the firm has been making progress towards being granted permission from Ofgem to restart forced PPM installations, we believe this calls into question the whole system the regulator has in place.”

In the letter, the Coalition asks the Secretary of State to:

  • Ban the practice of forced prepayment meters outright through legislation in the House of Commons. Ministers rejected the opportunity to do this during the passage of the Energy Act, leaving enforcement up to voluntary codes of practice and licence conditions.
  • Instruct Ofgem that the current ban – which includes switching of smart meters into PPM mode – must stay in place until at least April 2024. 
  • Ensure that Ofgem places Scottish Power under heightened monitoring for all aspects of its customer service and for its dealings with vulnerable customers. Scottish Power and its subcontractors must also be instructed to cancel all warrants it has sought so far and cease any current warrant applications being made.

The letter also highlights the “cloak of secrecy” which magistrates courts operate under and raises concerns that the same poor practices identified in the original PPMs scandal are still present, including distant hearings and nodding through batch applications.  

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition stresses that it recognises energy firms have genuine concerns about the levels of household energy debt caused by record energy bills, but argues for an alternative to forced PPMs – the introduction of a Help to Repay scheme and an Emergency Energy Tariff for vulnerable groups.

Over the summer, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition repeatedly highlighted to regulators and Ministers that the PPMs scandal was in danger of returning, first issuing a warning about energy firms’ conduct on PPMs on 17th May.

On 13th July, in a formal consultation response [pdf], the Coalition warned the regulator about firms’ conduct and in an accompanying press release urged the Government to act, also writing to the Minister highlighting the consultation response [pdf].

On 8 Sept the Coalition wrote to the current Secretary of State asking for a ban on forced PPMs again and on other issues including energy debt. The minister is still to reply to this letter.

Jonathan Bean from Fuel Poverty Action said: 

“This is yet more evidence that energy firms and Ofgem cannot be trusted to protect struggling customers from harm.  

“Forced installations of prepayment meters or switches of smart meters to PPM mode are inherently risky as they can lead to the loss of heating in the depths of winter.”

Jan Shortt, General Secretary of the National Pensioners Convention commented:

“The Secretary of State must ensure that the regulator, Ofgem, is much more proactive in applying the Code of Practice. 

“The NPC has been assured in writing that no energy provider currently meets the standards and therefore no Court should be undertaking the signing of warrants. 

“The impact on customers put through this process should not be dismissed by the energy industry and government so lightly.”

Warm This Winter campaign spokesperson Fiona Waters added: 

“It’s appalling that Scottish Power were granted warrants which would allow them to force their way into over a hundred homes to install prepayment meters and leave vulnerable people with just £30 credit.

“We now know at least two of those targeted had babies and toddlers which is completely against the Ofgem guidelines. It shows vetting is not working and the only way to safeguard against children being put in danger is to ban this barbaric act and find a better way to help ordinary people who find themselves in energy debt through no fault of their own.”

The full letter can be read online [pdf].