Energy companies will no longer be able to force households onto prepayment meters following concerns that debt agents had broken into vulnerable people’s homes.
In 2022, magistrates approved more than 1,000 warrants a day for this. Almost all of these claims are now authorised electronically or over the phone, by specific magistrates’ courts allocated to each energy company. Since the cost of living crisis began, it’s said that magistrates failed to safeguard vulnerable people and were instead accepting the word of big energy companies “in good faith”.
Prepayment meters are often used by suppliers to recover debt, and up until now, they have been able to force people to switch to them. Citizens Advice estimates that about 600,000 people were forced onto a prepayment meter in 2022 because they couldn’t afford their energy bills.
Last week, Lord Justice Edis issued directions to magistrates courts to stop approving warrants to force-fit prepayment meters, grinding the practice to a firm halt. A statement read: “Magistrates and district judges (magistrates’ courts) in issuing warrants of entry must act proportionately and with regard to the human rights of the people affected, particular any people with vulnerability.”
It follows Grant Shapps, the energy security secretary, launching a crackdown on the mistreatment of customers last month, where he charged the energy minister with meeting suppliers to explain their actions and called on magistrates to improve their scrutiny of the warrants.
Shapps has set suppliers a deadline to urgently report back on remedial action for customers who faced wrongful installations.
Despite the progress, he admitted he has only seen half of the picture due to companies not being forthcoming about the number of households affected. Shapps said: “This is simply not good enough and absolutely needs to be addressed by Ofgem’s review – I want to see plans from suppliers actually acted upon – and customers given the service they have a right to expect.”
Ofgem has been asked by Shapps to set up a new customer reporting system for households to pass on their own stories of how they are being treated – especially those who are vulnerable – and not just rely on energy firm bosses to share information.
Paul Morgan-Bentley, head of investigations at the Times, said: “Last month I worked undercover with debt collectors breaking into homes of vulnerable families for British Gas. We were sent to force-fit prepayment meters at homes including one where a mum was with her four week old baby. If families cannot top up, their heating can be cut off.”
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Caroline Flint, chairwoman of the government-sponsored fuel poverty advisory committee, said: “I think energy companies have been given the benefit of the doubt on this for too long and now I think it is right to have this moratorium. We might need new laws but I think the courts need to look to themselves on this as well. I think there is a question about how these warrants seemed to have been waved through.”
Prepayment meters – know your rights
Your supplier can’t make you move to prepayment if it wouldn’t be safe or practical. This means you can refuse to move to prepayment if:
- you have an illness or disability which makes it difficult for you to top it up
- you have an illness or disability which would be made worse if you lose power
- you can’t afford to top it up
- you are pregnant or have children under five
- you can’t get to your meter
- you can’t get to a shop to buy credit
If you run out of gas or electricity because you can’t top up your meter, this is called ‘self-disconnecting’. Tell your supplier that you’d have to self-disconnect if you had a prepayment meter.
You can find out more information about prepayment meters and your rights, including information about energy scams, here.