Ministers are being urged to stop the forced installation of prepayment meters after revelations that 3.2 million people – the equivalent of one person every 10 seconds – were left with cold and dark homes last year as they ran out of credit.
As energy prices surged this winter, suppliers have stepped up the use of court warrants to force their way into homes to install prepayment meters, with some magistrates approving hundreds of applications at a time. For homes with smart meters, the change can be made remotely without even needing a warrant.
An estimated 600,000 people were forced to make the switch away from credit meters after racking up debt with their energy supplier in 2022, compared with 380,000 in 2021, according to a major report by Citizens Advice, which is calling for an immediate ban on the use of court warrants. The charity fears a further 160,000 people could be switched by the end of winter if no further action is taken.
“There must be a total ban on energy companies forcing those already at breaking point on to prepayment meters,” said Clare Moriarty, the chief executive of Citizens Advice. “If the energy regulator doesn’t act, the government must intervene.”
Campaigners are warning of “disconnection by the back door”, with suppliers protecting their bottom line as consumers faced with cost of living rises struggle to top up and are cut off from heating and power.
Prepay meters charge for energy at a higher rate than contracts where the customer pays monthly or by direct debit, and people in debt are often left with no choice but to “self-disconnect”. For many, running out of credit is not a one-off event. More than 2 million people are being disconnected at least once a month, according to the report. A fifth of those on prepay report going without heat or light for at least 24 hours, unable to cook or wash.
Citizens Advice said more people sought its help because they couldn’t top up in 2022 than in the previous 10 years combined.
The charity has gathered a series of anonymised accounts from Britons battling to keep the lights on, including:
Rhiannon, a single parent with a baby who suffers from depression, fell behind on her payments after she separated with her partner. Her landlord allowed her supplier access to fit a prepayment meter. She has resorted to warming baby milk at her GP’s surgery and staying warm in her dad’s car.
Rona uses a wheelchair and lives with her daughter who has special educational needs. She is reliant on family to go to the Post Office to top up and was left without heating, lighting or means to make food over Christmas.
Alice, a woman with a lung condition who was moved on to a prepayment meter due to debt and couldn’t afford to top up. Her supplier told her she could not be helped again because she had been helped before, but being cut off prevents her charging her breathing machine.
Andy, a diabetic who was moved on to a prepayment meter and left without power for a week despite needing to keep his insulin in the fridge.
Under the terms of their licence, suppliers are not allowed to move customers on to a prepayment meter if they have an illness or disability which means they would be harmed if their gas or electricity was cut off. Suppliers have also signed up to a commitment to avoid cutting off anyone who is on a pension, disabled, chronically sick or has children over winter.
However, there are holes in the safety net. Disabled and vulnerable people already on prepay have been left without energy supplies, risking “physical and emotional harm”. The charity said that over 130,000 homes inhabited by a disabled person or someone with a long-term health condition are being disconnected from their energy supply at least once a week as they cannot afford to top up.
The numbers are estimates based on data from the energy regulator, Ofgem, and a representative poll of more than 4,000 adults in December commissioned by the charity. Using an average household size of 2.4 people, researchers estimated 3.2 million individuals across Great Britain live in households that ran out of credit at least once last year.
Energy suppliers typically ask customers to move on to a pay-as-you-go prepayment meter if they fall significantly behind on their monthly bills. Where the change cannot be made remotely via smart meter, suppliers or the debt collection agencies acting for them obtain court warrants to enter homes.
Data obtained from the Ministry of Justice through a freedom of information request has revealed hundreds of warrants of entry are being signed off in minutes in huge batches at magistrates courts around the country.
Citizens Advice said its data showed suppliers were “forcibly installing meters where it isn’t appropriate”.
The charity wants a review of all users of prepayment meters with a commitment to replace them with standard credit meters, where customers use the energy first and pay later, to remove the risk of disconnection.
MPs have also called for a ban on forced installations.
The Scottish National party MP Anne McLaughlin sponsored a private member’s bill that requires companies to allow a grace period before disconnecting customers with prepayment meters who have run out of credit, granting them extended emergency credit for six months. She labelled energy suppliers “morally repugnant”.
Rachael Maskell, the Labour MP for York Central, told the Guardian: “It is evident there is an escalation of people being forced on to prepayment meters where they’re paying more for their energy. If they’re unable to pay, they’re simply self-rationing.
“I’m calling on government to get a grip on the situation to enable people to remain on energy contracts with support, and prepay meters need serious redress, if not being ruled out completely, as an option for people in fuel poverty.” Maskell said she had raised the issue with justice minister Mike Freer.
Over the Christmas period, Ovo – one of the largest UK energy suppliers – paused the forced installation of prepayment meters.
Supporters of the use of prepayment meters note that they allow households to keep a close track of their spending and can prevent much larger debts mounting up.
The Citizens Advice study showed that 37% of prepayment customers with a disability or health condition had cut back on food spending to keep the lights on, while 14% used a food bank to maintain supplies.
A Government spokesperson said: “The Government expects energy suppliers to do all they can to help customers who are struggling to pay their bills and suppliers can only install prepayment meters without consent to recover debt as a last resort.
“The regulator Ofgem requires energy suppliers to offer solutions for customers in, or at risk of, debt or disconnection. This includes offering emergency credit to all pre-payment meter customers and additional support credit to customers in vulnerable circumstances.”
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