Government show ‘dereliction of responsibility’ on prepayment meters

Government ministers have been accused of failing vulnerable households as thousands of members of the public have overwhelmed an official consultation on prepayment meters (PPMs). [1]

Campaign group 38 Degrees helped over 20,000 people submit individual responses to Ofgem’s consultation on new PPM rules, which propose allowing energy firms to resume forcibly installing prepayment meters, while introducing protections for a select group of customers – households with members over 85 or under 5.

95% of these respondents told the regulator it should protect all households from forced prepayment meter installations.

The forced PPMs scandal rocked the energy industry after investigations by the i paper and The Times revealed the extent energy firms were using the courts to gain warrants to people’s homes to force vulnerable people onto PPMs. 

Expert reports cited in the End Fuel Poverty Coalition’s official response to the Ofgem consultation highlight the health problems potentially caused by people’s PPMs switching off and leaving them in cold damp homes. [2]

Despite bans being imposed on courts from issuing PPM warrants and a voluntary ban on energy firms from forcing people onto these meters, examples have emerged that firms are still threatening the use of court warrants and forced entry.

The Government has rejected backbench amendments to the Energy Bill which would give it the power to ban the forced transfer of households onto prepayment meters (PPMs). Further debate on the Bill will now not take place until the autumn after running out of Parliamentary time.

A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, commented:

“A legally enforceable ban on the forced transfer of homes onto a PPM is the solution to this abuse of power.

“Yet the Government continues to refuse to amend the Energy Bill to provide the protections vulnerable households need.

“Sadly, Ministers are showing a dereliction of responsibility toward the vulnerable. Instead of protecting them, they are keen to allow energy firms to restart forcing households onto prepayment meters and risk leaving them in cold damp homes this winter.”

MPs from across several political parties have offered Ministers the opportunity to amend the Energy Bill to ban forced PPMs. The latest attempt will be at the Report Stage where Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath, has tabled a fresh amendment.

Ian Preston, director of household energy services at the Centre for Sustainable Energy, said: 

“Over the last seven years our energy advisors consistently see shocking examples of poor customer service and awful treatment of vulnerable customers from energy suppliers. 

“The regulator needs to make better standards a licence condition rather than relying on principles which suppliers like Scottish Power seem to lack entirely.”

Among the members of the public who have responded to the consultation, Christine Davies, of Carmarthen, Wales commented:

“I live in dread, personally, of having to transfer to a prepayment meter at some point. I am disabled with multiple chronic illnesses and struggle to pay my bills. I am afraid of putting my heating on for too long and for as much as I need it.”

Peter Wilson, of Wallasey, Merseyside added:

“Ofgem’s brief is to protect all consumers; it is outrageous that prepayment meters can be forced on any customer as they inevitably affect the poorer members of the community, which is like kicking people when they are down.

“I have a mobility issue, and when I had a prepayment meter it was a serious worry to me that I was limited to the amount of money on the card and I did once run out over a Christmas period when my close family members were away.”

Anne McLaughlin, MP for Glasgow North East chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prepayment Meters and commented:

“The energy firms have lost all respect for Ofgem and they’re running circles around them. If they do breach Ofgem rules, they’re happy to take a slap on the wrist and pay the fines.

“The 18th April Voluntary Code of Conduct to prevent the forced installation of prepayment meters doesn’t go far enough, so we need the power to properly regulate energy firms and safeguard vulnerable prepayment meter customers handed to the Secretary of State for Energy Security & Net Zero. 

“The Energy Bill gives us a unique opportunity to do this in legislation, and I’m urging the UK Government to back any amendment that will allow this to happen.”

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition spokesperson, added:

“Profit-making energy firms claim they need to force people onto prepayment meters to help deal with rising energy debt levels. However, there is a better way to deal with this.

“Plans put forward by a range of charities, including the Money Advice Trust, would establish a Help to Repay scheme for energy debt which is a sustainable way to help households.”

More than 44,000 people have also signed a 38 Degrees petition, calling on Ofgem to ensure no one is forced onto a prepayment meter against their will.

ENDS

[1] https://www.endfuelpoverty.org.uk/about-fuel-poverty/ 

[2] End Fuel Poverty Coalition consultation response available online: 230713 EFPC Ofgem June PPM Consultation

Forced PPM threats still a problem for vulnerable households

Energy companies are continuing to threaten households with warrants for entry to forcibly install prepayment meters (PPMs), despite a voluntary end to the practice coming into force in February 2023. 

BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and the I newspaper has reported that energy firms who agreed to the voluntary ban are continuing to threaten households with forced installation. 

The forced installation of prepayment meters is especially a concern for vulnerable households, as changing to a PPM runs the risk of households having to suddenly stop using energy as the meter runs out of money, which can mean that these people will suffer the worst effects of living in cold damp homes during winter months. 

Desperate consumers have taken to social media asking for advice after they have continued to receive threats of court warrants for forced installation of prepayment  meters from their energy companies. 

Screenshots posted to an online group show email and post correspondence from debt collection firms and energy companies claiming that they will obtain a court warrant to forcibly enter their properties and install the meter. 

Many of the threats posted from energy companies are taken from emails and letters sent after the voluntary end to forced installation was imposed earlier in 2023. 

One woman based in Scotland complained that Scottish Power had failed to replace her faulty meter for three years, meaning that all of her readings during this time had been estimated. In screenshots of email correspondence, Conexus (employed by Scottish Power) insist that she must settle outstanding debt based on estimated readings or they will apply for a warrant of entry via the courts. The woman claims that the debt company has hounded her for some time and refused to discuss the matter with Scottish Power. 

Another couple who are vulnerable, receiving benefits and suffering from chronic health conditions, highlighted that their energy company OVO had failed to take their vulnerable status (and the fact that they are on the Priority Services Register) into account and had passed their case to a debt collection agency. This agency is now threatening to apply for a warrant for forcible installation of a prepayment meter in the couple’s home.

A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition commented:

“Energy firms are just not getting the message. The forced prepayment meters scandal should have been a wake up call as to how they treat their customers. But the evidence is mounting that this is not the case. It appears that they continue to threaten people with prepayment meters. This causes huge amounts of distress to often vulnerable households.

“It’s clear that the voluntary approach to banning forced prepayment meters is just not working and MPs must now act to bring in a legal ban to the practice through the Energy Bill.

“It’s no longer enough for MPs just to claim they support vulnerable customers. They need to take the action required to ban forced prepayment meters.”

Almost three-quarters of the public would back changes to the Energy Bill to ensure the Government introduces a legal ban to the forced transfer of homes onto PPMs, according to figures from the Warm This Winter campaign. 

An amendment to the Energy Bill has been tabled by Anne McLaughlin MP to bring in such a ban and the End Fuel Poverty Coalition urges all MPs to add their names to support amendments NC1 and NC2 during the committee stage of the legislation.

A recent investigation by the i paper found that in total over 13,000 warrants for entry have been issued by courts to energy firms since the voluntary end was introduced in February, with the Ministry of Justice unable to confirm why these warrants were granted. 

Courts continue to grant entry warrants to energy firms

Courts have granted over 13,000 warrants allowing energy firms the right to force entry into homes and businesses since a voluntary end to the forced installation of prepayment meters (PPMs) was introduced in February 2023.

There are currently exceptions to the voluntary ban, meaning that energy firms still have the right to force entry to install prepayment meters on businesses and also to enter properties for safety purposes. 

But the investigation by the i paper claims that the Ministry of Justice “does not keep data on why energy firms and their agents request warrants to force entry into properties.” Only two applications for warrants have been rejected by the courts since February.

The ongoing campaign to ban forced prepayment meters came after it was shown that energy firms were using the courts to gain warrants to enter vulnerable people’s homes to force them onto more expensive PPMs.

Energy firms have recently signed up to a new voluntary code of conduct, designed to govern the forced installation of prepayment meters. This is due to come into force from 1 October 2023, but the End Fuel Poverty Coalition argues that the guidelines do not go far enough, failing to protect highly vulnerable groups and failing to help to tackle rising energy debt. 

A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition commented:

“These figures should be sounding alarm bells for ministers, magistrates and at Ofgem. We need urgent clarifications on why these warrants were issued, and the process that energy firms followed to secure them.

“The public have had enough of this scandal and are calling for the government to act to bring in provisions for a ban on forced prepayment meters into the Energy Bill currently in Parliament.”

Almost three-quarters of the public would back changes to the Energy Bill to ensure the Government can ban the forced transfer of homes onto PPMs, according to figures from the Warm This Winter campaign.

An amendment to the Energy Bill has been tabled by Anne McLaughlin MP to bring in such a ban and the End Fuel Poverty Coalition urges all MPs to add their names to support amendments NC1 and NC2 during the committee stage of the legislation.

MPs urged to ban forced PPMs in Energy Bill

Almost three-quarters of the public would back changes to the Energy Bill to ensure the Government can ban the forced transfer of homes onto prepayment meters (PPMs), according to new figures from the Warm This Winter campaign.

Half of the public believe there should be a permanent ban of the forced transfer of households onto prepayment meters to ensure they pay off their energy debts, with a further 23% backing a ban while energy bills stay high.  [1]

The Energy Bill, which has its second reading in the House of Commons on 9 May, currently makes no provision for a ban. This is despite almost two-thirds (62%) of the public being very or somewhat concerned by the PPMs scandal which rocked the energy industry earlier this year. [2]

An investigation by the i paper revealed the extent to which energy firms were using the courts to gain warrants to enter people’s homes to force them onto PPMs. During the investigation, energy firms assured campaigners, ministers, MPs and the media that these meters were not used on vulnerable customers. However, The Times undercover investigation into British Gas’ use of PPMs proved this was not the case.

Energy firms have recently signed up to a new voluntary code of conduct, designed to govern the forced installation of prepayment meters. This is due to come into force from 1 October 2023, but the End Fuel Poverty Coalition argues that the guidelines do not go far enough, failing to protect highly vulnerable groups and failing to help to tackle rising energy debt. 

A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, commented:

“During the PPMs scandal, the Secretary of State claimed that he did not have the power to ban the forced transfer of households onto PPMs. We would urge politicians to give the Government these powers to safeguard the most vulnerable from this inhumane process.”

An amendment to the Energy Bill to give Ministers the power to ban forced PPMs has been tabled by Anne McLaughlin. The SNP MP for Glasgow North East chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prepayment Meters and commented:

“The energy firms have lost all respect for Ofgem and they’re running circles around them. If they do breach Ofgem rules, they’re happy to take a slap on the wrist and pay the fines.

“The 18th April Voluntary Code of Conduct to prevent the forced installation of prepayment meters doesn’t go far enough, so we need the power to properly regulate energy firms and safeguard vulnerable prepayment meter customers handed to the Secretary of State for Energy Security & Net Zero. 

“The Energy Bill gives us a unique opportunity to do this in legislation, and I’m urging the UK Government to back any amendment that will allow this to happen.”

Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Teverson, who attempted to introduce a PPM amendment during the Energy Bill’s earlier stages said:

“There is nothing more frightening than to have someone invade your home and force changes on how you run your life. 

“That is what having your energy meter changed to prepayment can mean for ordinary families already under stress from high energy costs. The Energy Bill could fix this if the ministers willed it.”

Labour MP for Liverpool Walton Dan Carden added:

“In the middle of the worst cost of living crisis for fifty years energy companies were breaking into the homes of impoverished and vulnerable customers. 

“It is clear that throughout last winter, energy companies felt as though they could act with impunity. Indeed, there can be few clearer examples of how our energy system is rigged against struggling families in favour of unscrupulous suppliers. 

“The Government must now use the Energy Bill to ban the forced transfer onto prepayment meters in order to protect families in the future from suffering the same inhumane practices. It is the Government’s decision to make.”

Plans for an amendment to the Bill to ban forced PPMs are backed by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition and the Warm This Winter campaign, which last week started a mass action to persuade MPs to support amendments that would help to improve Britain’s broken energy system.

Jonathan Bean from Fuel Poverty Action, which is part of the Warm This Winter campaign, said:

“We were promised no return to the bad old days of forced PPMs.  But there is a serious threat of more trauma and suffering this winter unless a permanent ban is put in place. MPs need to act now to protect their constituents.”

Eva Watkinson from Debt Justice said:

“Forcing people in debt onto pre-pay meters adds to the shame, stigma and trauma that they often experience. This disgusting practice must now be banned by the government and unpayable debts written off. ”

Tessa Khan from Uplift added:

“The Energy Bill is back in the House of Commons, but right now, it’s a missed opportunity to start fixing our broken energy system.”

ENDS

For more information, sources and background on the PPMs scandal visit https://www.endfuelpoverty.org.uk/about-fuel-poverty/forced-pre-payment-meter-transfer/ 

Representatives from other political parties can submit their comments to info@endfuelpoverty.org.uk for inclusion in the version of this story on the End Fuel Poverty Coalition website.

[1] 2,193 people interviewed online between 4-5 May 2023 on behalf of the Warm This Winter campaign. Results are weighted to be representative of the GB adult population. 

Question asked was “Do you think the forced transfer of households onto energy prepayment meters to ensure they pay off their energy debts should be banned?”

  • Yes – permanently (50%)
  • Yes – while energy bills stay high (23%)
  • No (11%)
  • Don’t know (16%)

[2] As above. Question asked was “media investigations revealed that energy firms were using court warrants to force homes to accept prepayment meters (PPMs) in their homes. How concerned were you about these revelations?”

  • Very concerned (36%)
  • Somewhat concerned (26%)
  • Neither concerned nor unconcerned (12%)
  • Not very concerned (7%)
  • Not at all concerned (9%)
  • Don’t know / haven’t heard about this (10%)

Pre-payment meters pressure mounts on government and suppliers

The pressure on the Government and energy firms to ban the forced transfer of households to pre-payment meters (PPMs) is growing.

The scandal, revealed in the i paper, that energy firms have secured almost 500,000 court warrants to install these PPMs in homes of customers in debt, has led to debates and questions in the Houses of Parliament.

The House of Commons agreed to a motion put forward by Anne McLaughlin MP that:

That this House… is deeply concerned that so called self-disconnection of prepayment meter customers will see the most vulnerable in our society left without heat, light and facilities to cook and wash over the coming winter; and strongly urges the Government to outlaw self-disconnection to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable customers are not left without basic energy provision.

Further questions from MPs across the political spectrum have challenged the legal process followed by energy firms and magistrates – with media reports likening the situation to the “Wild West.”

In response, OVO Energy has introduced a temporary ban on forcing people onto prepayment meters over Christmas – but insists the practice will resume in the new year.

The firm’s promise came in response to a demand from campaign group 38 Degrees, who recently wrote to all the UK’s major energy suppliers urging them to stop forcibly installing prepayment meters and remotely switching smart meters to prepayment mode without customer consent.

OVO also highlighted its suspension of debt recovery until at least March 2023 – meaning all customer top-ups will be used to pay for usage and standing charges only, not to pay off existing debts. But this will only be a temporary reprieve if debt collection restarts in the spring – when energy prices are once again set to rise.

Tens of thousands of people have now added their names to a 38 Degrees petition addressed to the CEOs of Britain’s major energy companies, demanding a total end to any switching without active, informed consumer consent.

People can add their name here: https://act.38degrees.org.uk/act/stop-forced-prepayment

Matthew McGregor, CEO at 38 Degrees, said:

By pledging not to push anyone into prepayment over the Christmas period, OVO is demonstrating they know just how damaging it is.

While it may be good news that struggling families won’t wake up to a prepayment meter on December 25th, they could still be facing disconnection by the backdoor come January.

If it’s not acceptable at Christmas time, why should this harmful practice be considered business as usual for the rest of the year?

Every single time these multi-billion pound companies push a prepayment meter onto someone who is struggling, they’re risking another customer facing the stark choice between feeding the meter and feeding their family.

But they have the chance to do the right thing: put people before profit by committing to end all forced transfer to prepayment.

The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, said in response to a question in the House of Commons from Gerald Jones MP on Tuesday about to need for extra support for customers on the meters:

We will continue to monitor the situation over the months ahead because we are aware of the extreme vulnerabilities of this group.

But a spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said the Government needed to go further:

Even the energy firms are now waking up to the reality that pre-payment meter customers are struggling in cold damp homes this winter.

Research for the Warm This Winter campaign has shown that PPM customers are likely to be vulnerable or have health conditions made worse by being unable to stay warm.

Many will have been forced onto a pre-payment meter against their will.

With MPs and charities increasingly concerned for the wellbeing of people in cold damp homes, we cannot leave their safety to chance.

The Government must act urgently to ban any further forced installations of pre-payment meters either by court warrant or by smart meter.