Peter Knight* was registered as disabled and on a list of “vulnerable” customers, but that did not stop the power supplier SSE from turning up at his home in December, threatening to install a prepayment meter.
He was handed a debt collection notice for £78 – a portion of his gas arrears – and told they would return with a court-issued warrant and install a prepayment meter in his home if he did not pay.
Knight, who is 32, lives on benefits and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder among other conditions, starts to cry as he recounts the experience. The visit came at the end of three weeks of phone calls from SSE, which in 2020 had its retail arm acquired by Ovo, the UK’s third-largest supplier.
It is understood Knight had accrued debt balances of more than £400 on his gas account due to non-payment, and he had cancelled his direct debit following the October price cap increase. The company was made aware of his physical impairment and mental ill health and he was advised about seeking financial assistance.
Despite repeatedly telling SSE staff that he was already struggling financially, he was given a stark choice, he says – either set up a direct debit with a promise to pay an unaffordable £330 a month, or accept a prepayment meter. He was also charged £33 in late payment and collection fees. When he put them off, the agent turned up at his house.
“My universal credit award is £970 a month. My rent is £550. What are people in my situation supposed to do? I’m already sitting in the dark most of the time with the heating off. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this winter with my mental health intact. I was bawling my eyes out yesterday and I’m struggling to sleep,” says Knight, who lives alone in the north-east of England.
Under their licence terms, suppliers are not allowed to move customers on to a prepayment meter if they have an illness or disability as they could be harmed if their gas or electricity were cut off.
Only after he stood his ground and told the company the situation was pushing him to the edge, did an SSE employee contact him to confirm that as he was vulnerable the company would not be installing a meter unless he requested it.
Knight’s debt has now been deferred for 65 working days and SSE has credited him £50 on his account.
“They refused to allow me to service my arrears unless I agreed to sign up to a £330 a month direct debit,” he says, adding that this amount appeared to be calculated based on the last tenant’s winter usage, a breach of Ofgem rules. “I suspect that they are subjecting thousands of people to this kind of harassment with no care for the regulations. It’s disgusting.”
Following the Guardian’s intervention, SSE listened again to the calls. It has since apologised to Knight. The company calculated new monthly direct debit payments based on his actual usage. The collection and late payment fees were cleared, and a goodwill payment added to his gas account.
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“We are here to support customers who are worried about their energy bills this winter and provide them with the financial support and advice they need,” SSE said.
*Peter Knight is not his real name
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This article was amended on 12 January 2023 to clarify that Ovo acquired only the retail part of SSE in 2020.