Controversy sparked as mandatory installation of prepayment energy meters is reinstated
Campaigners calling for a complete ban have expressed their criticism of stricter regulations regarding the selection of homes eligible for mandatory prepayment energy meter installation.
The regulatory body Ofgem has stated that customers should be provided with additional opportunities to settle their debts and that mandatory energy meter installations will no longer be permitted in households where all occupants are over 85 years old.
According to charities, the measures are insufficient since they are optional, whereas Ofgem asserts that they will shortly become compulsory.
The installation was stopped after representatives forcibly entered the residences of individuals who were at risk or in need.
An investigation by The Times, exposed the actions of agents for British Gas, this led to public outcry when the story went public.
"The new rules fall short," commented Simon Francis, who coordinates the End Fuel Poverty Coalition. Citizens Advice urged for a prompt transition to mandatory status.
Government ministers would have to implement a complete prohibition on mandatory installations.
It seems that Energy Secretary Grant Shapps verified that the government plans to take measures.
When questioned about the government's plans to regulate pre-payment meters as he exited Downing Street, Mr. Shapps responded, "Yes, we will address this."
The CEO of Ofgem, Jonathan Brearley, stated that as a regulator, they must maintain a balance between debt management and safeguarding vulnerable consumers. Nonetheless, he cautioned that companies risk damaging their reputations if they do not comply with the regulations.
During an interview with the BBC's Today program, he explained that although they cannot monitor every action taken by suppliers, they possess the capability to scrutinise a company's operations in-depth to uncover any malpractice. However, he could not guarantee the absence of such activities.
The credibility of energy companies' self-evaluation has been called into question, and they must meet five requirements before they can resume forcibly installing meters from May. However, in reality, it may take several months for certain firms to meet these conditions and start the forcible installations once again.
According to Ofgem, the code will be transformed into new compulsory regulations, and they will enhance them further if necessary.
Mr. Brearley emphasised that there will be significantly stricter surveillance of the new regulations. He further added that if companies don't comply with the standards, more stringent regulations will be enforced, which would be detrimental to their business interests.
He mentioned that the regulator has the authority to utilise smart meters and bodycam footage as evidence to evaluate the performance of the companies.
Since the increase in energy prices, the prevalence of switching individuals to prepayment meters without their consent has escalated.
Energy suppliers can perform this action either through a warrant or remotely by using smart meters. They claim that this practice can assist customers who are in debt to manage their expenses efficiently.
However, campaigners argue that prepayment meters, which require regular top-ups, leave vulnerable customers susceptible to the possibility of running out of credit and being unable to access electricity and heating.
It is worth noting that all energy suppliers operating in England, Scotland, and Wales have pledged to comply with a code of conduct that lays out the guidelines they must follow when installing prepayment meters.
The regulations stipulate that energy suppliers are now obligated to undertake a minimum of ten efforts to get in touch with the customer and carry out a "site welfare visit" prior to installing a prepayment meter.
To ensure compliance with the aforementioned regulations, personnel tasked with installing prepayment meters are required to wear either body cameras or audio recording devices during the installation process.
Customers who are compelled to switch to a prepayment meter, whether through remote means or by warrant, will be granted an initial credit of £30. This measure has been put in place to mitigate the possibility of customers losing access to their energy supply.
Customers who are aged over 85 or have a terminal illness must have someone else present in the house when a supplier is fitting a meter. Furthermore, customers who have certain health conditions, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and sickle cell disease, which could potentially be aggravated by living in a cold environment, are also excluded from the requirement
Customers who require an uninterrupted energy supply for health reasons or who are physically or mentally incapable of topping up their prepayment meter will not be switched to a prepayment meter. This measure is in place to ensure that vulnerable customers are not put at risk of losing their energy supply.
In addition, suppliers have been instructed to identify cases where prepayment meters were installed incorrectly and take corrective action by returning the customer to their previous tariff and offering appropriate compensation. This action is intended to rectify any errors that may have been made in the installation process and to ensure that customers are not unfairly disadvantaged as a result of these mistakes.
Once a customer has fully repaid their debt, their case will be reviewed and they may have the option to switch back to a standard credit meter. This is part of the effort to ensure that prepayment meters are not used as a long-term solution for customers who are struggling to pay their energy bills, and to promote fair treatment and better support for vulnerable customers.
There are some concerns among consumer groups that the new rules may not go far enough in protecting all vulnerable customers, and that only the highest risk individuals will be safeguarded under these regulations. Some have argued that there needs to be a more comprehensive approach to addressing the issue of prepayment meters, including better education.
Suppliers are obligated to conduct additional risk assessments for vulnerable customers classified as "medium risk," but they may proceed with forced prepayment meter installations if they believe it is warranted.
Individuals considered to be in the "medium risk" category may include seniors between the ages of 75 and 84, parents with children under the age of five, expectant mothers, those with Alzheimer's disease, and others with similar conditions.
Mr. Francis, from the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, has pointed out that the new policy offering free energy upgrades for homes has its limitations. Although it may benefit several elderly individuals, there are some exceptions. Those who are below the age of 85 may not be eligible for the policy, and disabled individuals who rely on electricity to charge their wheelchairs may also not be covered. Consequently, some elderly and disabled individuals may still not have access to the benefits of this policy.
Scope, a charity that advocates for disability equality, is urging for a complete prohibition of the rules that permit force-fitting energy meters in certain households. The charity warns that these regulations may result in some households that include individuals with disabilities to have meters forcefully installed, which could cause significant harm.
According to Citizens Advice, around 600,000 individuals had to switch to prepayment meters last year due to difficulties in paying their bills. This figure represents an increase from the 380,000 individuals who were forced to switch in 2021.
Before companies can resume force-fitting meters, they must ensure that they pass a series of tests, including an audit to identify any improperly installed meters. Additionally, they must address any previous issues related to meter fitting that have been outlined by the regulator.