Energy firms are putting a growing number of customers on to pay-as-you-go energy plans in a bid to tackle energy debt, and are increasingly using court orders to forcibly install prepayment meters in the homes of those who owe them money.
Ofgem, the energy regulator, has criticised the practice, as suppliers should first put indebted customers on a repayment plan, and only take out a warrant to forcibly install a prepayment meter as a last resort.
But an increasing number of customers are being hit with court orders - 84,000 warrants for prepayment meters were issued in 2017, up from 81,000 in 2016.
In its annual report, Vulnerable consumers in the energy market, the regulator found that three suppliers – British Gas, Ovo Energy, and Utility Warehouse – forcibly fitted a much higher proportion of meters per head than the industry average, with Utility Warehouse installing around five times as many, British Gas around twice as many and Ovo Energy around a third more.
The main concern is that customers aren’t getting enough support when they find themselves in debt, particularly those who are with smaller suppliers – the report found smaller suppliers have, on average, just 25% of indebted customers on a repayment plan, compared to 58% for larger suppliers.
And, to make matters worse, obtaining a warrant can cost up to £150, which your supplier will then add onto the money you owe them.
So, what can you do if your energy supplier insists on installing a prepayment meter?
If you’ve fallen into debt with your energy supplier, they can’t forcibly install a prepayment meter unless they first offer other ways to repay the money you owe, such as a repayment plan or payments taken directly from any benefits.
If your supplier hasn’t offered either of these alternatives, and is insisting you get a prepayment meter installed, you need to make a complaint to outline no other repayment options have been offered. If they don’t respond, you’re not happy with the response, or they come back to you with a court order, you should immediately take your complaint to the energy ombudsman.
It’s also worth getting in touch with Citizens Advice, on the following numbers, between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday:
It could also be that the debt is from a previous tenant, in which case you should make a complaint to your supplier, giving evidence the debt isn’t yours, and then take the claim to the ombudsman if you’re unhappy with the response.
And you can also refuse installation if your supplier hasn’t given you at least 28 days to repay your debt before writing to you to say they want to install a prepayment meter, or turn up at your home to install a prepayment meter without giving you at least seven days’ notice for a gas meter, and seven working days’ notice for an electricity meter.
You can also refuse a prepayment meter if you’re disabled or ill, and your condition makes it difficult for you to use, read or top up the meter, or if your illness affects your breathing or is made worse by the cold, such as asthma or arthritis.
If you use a stair lift, dialysis machine, or any other medical equipment that needs electricity, you can also object to the installation of a prepayment meter.
There are also practical reasons why you can refuse installation. If, for example, your meter is too high to reach, is in a cupboard or room you don’t have access to, or if your nearest top up point is over two miles away and you don’t have a car or motorbike, you can stop the installation.
If this is the case though, your supplier may be able to work around the problem by moving your meter and offering an online top-up facility.
Unfortunately, if none of the reasons above apply to your situation, then your energy supplier has every right to insist on installing a prepayment meter at your home.
If you don’t agree and want to make a complaint, check out How to make a complaint about your energy supplier.
And if you’re struggling to pay your energy bills, there may be grants and benefits available to help you, such as the cold weather payment, Fuel Direct scheme, Warm Home Discount or Winter Fuel Payments.
Click here to run an energy price comparison, and see if you could be paying less for your gas and electricity.