Concerns have been raised in parliament that more households will be pushed on to prepayment meters through court warrants “issued in seconds” during freezing conditions next week.
MPs joined charities and consumer groups in calling for an immediate ban on the use of court warrants after the Guardian reported estimates from Citizens Advice that 600,000 people were forced to make the switch from credit meters once they had racked up debt with their energy supplier in 2022, compared with 380,000 in 2021.
Hundreds of warrants allowing energy companies or their debt collection agents to enter homes and install prepayment meters are being signed off in huge batches at magistrates courts around the country, according to a freedom of information release from the Ministry of Justice.
“When will we have a statement from the government about its intention to ban this practice, so that our constituents do not lose their right to light and to warmth?,” the Labour MP Hilary Benn asked during a question and answer session with the leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, on Thursday.
The Labour MP Clive Efford noted 30,000 forced-entry warrants a month were being granted to energy suppliers.
He said: “These companies can’t possibly be doing the right checks on these people before these warrants are being sought. And the court certainly aren’t questioning them – they are issued literally in seconds flat.
“So can we have a statement from the government because next week, the weather is going to turn freezing again. So this is very urgent indeed.”
Temperatures are expected to fall sharply from the weekend after a mild start to January, raising concerns over conditions for vulnerable Britons who have been rationing their energy use in the face of high bills.
Efford noted that some meters are being switched remotely to prepay mode without customers knowing before their electricity goes off. “We can’t allow this to happen,” he said.
The Labour MP Rachael Maskell asked the government to set out its position on prepayment meters “urgently” because ministers needed to “scrutinise exactly what governments are doing to protect the most vulnerable people from fuel poverty”.
Responding for the government, Mordaunt said: “I know there are concerns not just about that practice of putting people on to those payment systems, but also some of the billing that companies are doing and the timeliness of passing on government support to those people as well.”
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Mordaunt said she would raise the issue within government. The justice ministerMike Freer said this week he intended to speak to the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary on the subject.
Government data released last month revealed a third of energy vouchers designed to cut bills for people on prepayment meters this winter had not been claimed.
Mordaunt said there was a “huge disparity across the country” in the number of warrants being issued, and noted that the magistrates court within her constituency in Portsmouth had signed off thousands of warrants.
Ovo, one of the largest UK energy suppliers, paused the forced installation of prepayment meters over Christmas.