Ofgem Defends Decision Not to Ban Force Fitting of Energy Meters

New rules offering protection for struggling customers who could be forcibly switched to a prepayment meter have been criticised by campaigners. Customers must be given more chance to clear debts and forced meter installations will be banned in homes of those over 85, regulator Ofgem said.

Charities say the measures do not go far enough because they are voluntary – a claim rejected by Ofgem. Fitting was halted after agents broke into the homes of vulnerable people.

The investigation by The Times, exposing the actions of agents for British Gas, led to a public outcry. Simon Francis, coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said the new rules “do not go far enough”.

Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley said it needed to balance managing debt, while also protecting vulnerable customers. “We cannot look at everything that suppliers do, so we cannot guarantee there will be no bad practice out there. But we have the ability to go deep into a company to see what is happening,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ”

Energy firms will need to satisfy five conditions before they can resume force-fitting of meters from May, and Mr Brearley said their reputations were on the line if they failed.

Ofgem said it would be turning the code into new mandatory rules, and would strengthen them if required.

Mr Brearley said there would be “much tighter” monitoring of the new rules. He said that if companies failed to adhere to the requirements then tighter regulations would be introduced that would be “against their commercial interests”.

He said the regulator could call in information from smart meters and bodycam evidence to check companies’ performance.

Switching people onto prepayment meters without their consent has become more common since energy prices went up.

It can be done by warrant or remotely via smart meters, with suppliers saying it may help indebted customers manage their spending.

But campaigners say prepayment meters – which must be topped up – leave vulnerable customers at risk of running out of credit and losing access to light and heat.

All energy suppliers in England, Scotland and Wales have signed up to a code of conduct that sets out the practices they should adhere to when fitting the meters, which the regulator plans to make mandatory.

Under the rules, suppliers will now have to make at least 10 attempts to contact a customer – and conduct a “site welfare visit” before a prepayment meter is installed. Representatives fitting them will also have to wear body cameras or audio equipment to make sure the rules are followed.

In addition:

>>> Those forced onto a prepay meter – either by warrant or remotely – will be given £30 of credit initially to reduce the risk of them losing supply
>>> Suppliers will not be allowed to fit meters for customers over 85 or anyone with a terminal illness.
>>> Those who need a continuous supply for health reasons, and those physically or mentally unable to top up will not be switched
>>> Suppliers have also been told to identify where meters were wrongfully installed and to return the customer to their previous tariff and offer compensation
>>> If a customer has repaid what it owed, then their case can be reassessed and they may be able to move back off a prepayment meter.

However, there are concerns the rules will only protect the highest-risk individuals.

For vulnerable customers in a “medium risk” category, suppliers will be required to carry out further risk assessments but can still go ahead with forced installations if they consider them justified.

Medium risk individuals could include elderly people aged between 75 and 84, parents of children under five years old, pregnant women and people with Alzheimer’s disease among other conditions.

“What about elderly people below the age of 85? Also some disabled people could still miss out – people using power to charge their wheelchairs, for example. There will be people who aren’t covered,” said Mr Francis of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition.

Disability equality charity Scope is calling for an outright ban, warning the rules mean some disabled households could still have meters force-fitted.

An estimated 600,000 people were forced to switch to prepayment meters after struggling to pay their bills last year, up from 380,000 in 2021, according to Citizens Advice.

Even before force-fitting of meters could resume, companies should be satisfied they pass tests including an audit to uncover any wrongfully installed meters. Also, they must deal with any historical issues over meter fitting outlined by the regulator.

You might also like