Ofgem must do more to stop force-fitting of prepayment meters - Jayne Dowle

It’s outrageous that vulnerable people, including those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and mothers of newborn babies, will still be at risk of energy companies breaking into their homes and force-fitting prepayment meters.

Even though energy regulator Ofgem has been forced – following an investigation by a national newspaper – to re-assess guidelines on pay-as-you-go equipment, it’s still not gone far enough according to many.

Me included. I’ve rarely had a happy relationship with my energy company. As a journalist with a long-standing interest in consumer affairs, I’ve been alert to sharp practices for decades.

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Indeed, I’m in a stand-off right now with my current supplier, which dropped two massive one-off direct debits on me at the start of this month amounting to almost £1,000, with no warning, to make up for the shortfall accrued over the winter months. And withheld the last £67 instalment of my £400 government energy bills support scheme cash.

A gas hob with a bill from British Gas. Picture: PA/Owen Humphreys.A gas hob with a bill from British Gas. Picture: PA/Owen Humphreys.
A gas hob with a bill from British Gas. Picture: PA/Owen Humphreys.

What I’m really concerned about is that in this era of sky-high energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis that has seen the price of basic foods – bread, milk, cheese – rise by 80 per cent in a year, according to latest figures, it’s seemingly okay for energy companies to bully people by breaking into their homes and make their financial situation even more perilous.

It’s been reported that up to 94,000 such pre-payment meters were forcibly installed last year; 70 per cent involved just three energy companies, British Gas, Scottish Power and Ovo.

Although ministers were said to be “horrified”, Energy Secretary Grant Shapps has stopped short of calling for an outright ban on the meters, as he said some consumers preferred them.

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That’s acceptable, but what is not remotely acceptable is that agents were reported to arrive with warrants to break into homes, with the documentation signed off in batches by magistrates’ courts, apparently with little scrutiny. How did this even happen, in a democracy?

The findings laid bare in the newspaper report led to investigations by the government, two parliamentary committees and Ofgem, the energy regulator.

Force-fitting was suspended until energy companies agreed to a legally enforceable code of practice. And Lord Justice Edis ordered courts to stop listing hearings for energy warrants “until further notice”.

The new voluntary code does at least go some of the way towards ending the most abusive practices. Energy companies will be banned from force-fitting meters in “high-risk” cases.

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However, there is no outright ban on forced installations in the homes of customers deemed “medium-risk”.

So people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and mothers with newborns can still have meters imposed on them, although getting to the shops or online for a top-up might be impossible.

Even though the new rules require companies to assess vulnerability, including via a “site welfare visit”, before breaking into homes, you can see how this could go terribly wrong.

Customers, who should come first, have reported the threat of a pre-payment meter if they’ve complained about an increase to their direct debit, that the debt collectors in charge of force-fitting have got the wrong addresses and when top-ups are made, arrears are taken off first, leaving just pence to cover essential gas and electricity.

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Costs for energy through pre-payment meters are always higher than those on standard tariffs, so this hardly improves matters for those already struggling to pay.

Mr Shapps, who promised that by the summer, energy prices will have “drifted downwards” – and we’ll believe that when we see it – seems oblivious to the very real suffering innocent people will still have to endure from energy companies.

He should put far more pressure on Ofgem to hold energy companies to account and ensure that the regulator is given the funding and resources it needs.

For too long now, providers have been allowed to get away with putting the customer last; reaping massive windfall taxes and outsourcing customer service overseas to cut costs.

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I worried for days about those two looming direct debits. However, my anxiety was as nothing compared to the prospect of strangers breaking into my home and force-fitting equipment that would make my bills even higher.

The government has the power to ban anything it likes, and does so with alacrity. Why not force-fitted meters?