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Pre-payment meters: Can my energy firm force me to get one if I'm behind on bills?

Energy companies can even replace smart meters with prepayment in a jiffy.

Energy companies’ practice of forcing households to use more expensive prepayment meters if they are struggling to pay their bills has been condemned as “unacceptable” by energy watchdog Ofgem and Business and Energy Secretary Grant Shapps.

Today, Jonathan Brearley, chief executive of Ofgem, said he was “concerned” about the growing number of prepayment meters being installed by energy companies, regardless of customer wishes, and threatened legal action if vulnerable customers were harmed.

Brearley said: “I am concerned about the sharp rise in the number of households struggling to pay their bills who have switched to prepayment meters, sometimes without them even knowing it, leaving them without heating.

He continued: “The number of forced installations of prepayment meters is extremely high. It is simply unacceptable that vulnerable customers are left in the dark and cold in winter.

Energy companies can even replace smart meters with prepayment in a jiffy.

Energy companies can even replace smart meters with prepayment in a jiffy.

Business and Energy Secretary Grant Shapps wrote a letter to energy companies yesterday urging them to stop forcibly installing prepaid meters as many households struggle to afford the cost of living .

Here’s everything you need to know about why energy companies equip their customers with prepayment meters – and your rights if this happens to you.

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Why do companies in the energy sector install prepayment meters?

Currently, more than three million homes are equipped with prepaid meters, and this number is growing rapidly.

This is because energy companies force certain customers to purchase these meters, which forces you to pay in advance for all the energy you use.

Energy companies do this because households are falling behind with their energy bills.

However, another reason why the number of prepayment meters is increasing is that some households are asking them to help them limit their spending on energy bills.

A smart meter can be replaced by remote prepayment in many cases without a visit from energy company staff.

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More expensive: Customers with prepaid meters usually end up paying higher prices for gas and electricity

More expensive: Customers with prepaid meters usually end up paying higher prices for gas and electricity

What’s wrong with prepayment meters?

Simply, vulnerable and struggling households may end up paying more for energy and may not be able to afford to buy electricity when they need it most.

Customers with prepayment meters pay more for their energy than those without, because prepayment meters are more expensive for energy companies to operate. This cost is passed on in the form of higher tariffs.

If a customer cannot afford to recharge his meter, he does not get any electricity. Charity Citizens Advice said 3.2 million households were out of credit at some point last year.

Additionally, some energy companies are accused of being underhanded in the way they install prepayment meters.

Ofgem’s Brearley said a man in Glasgow went on holiday and returned home to find he had been replaced with a prepayment meter without his knowledge – and had no way of recharging.

Your rights around prepaid meters

Energy companies have the right to come into your home and install a prepayment meter, but they must prove that it is necessary and that it should be a last resort.

The same goes for them who transform a smart meter into a prepayment meter.

However, Ofgem’s rules state that energy companies must check that a household is not vulnerable before any change in prepayment, and must explain any additional help available.

Cost of life

So, for example, a supplier cannot install a prepayment meter if they are unsure, or if a disability or illness means you would suffer if your energy were cut off for non-payment.

Energy companies also cannot install prepayment meters if you cannot recharge the device, for example because you live far from a store allowing you to do so.

If you are in debt to your energy supplier, they must give 28 days’ notice before installing a prepayment meter.

Can an energy company break into my home to install a prepayment meter?

No, they can only enter peacefully. They will either need your permission to come in and do the work, or go to a magistrates’ court to get permission.

However, if they go to court, they can add the cost of obtaining this warrant to any debt you owe them.

They must also give at least seven days notice before installing a prepayment meter.

Can I refuse a prepayment meter?

No, if you are in debt with energy bills. Energy companies have the legal right to install these devices, and not even Ofgem can stop them.

However, if you think your supplier should not install a prepaid meter in your home, you can complain.

Millions of people are left in cold, dark and damp homes because they cannot afford to recharge their meters. No one should be forced to live like this

Gillian Cooper, Citizen Advice

You can do this by first talking to your supplier and filing a formal complaint. If you don’t hear back within eight weeks, or if it’s been eight weeks since they made a final decision, you can go to the Energy Ombudsman to file a new complaint.

This is a free process, and the Ombudsman acts as an independent evaluator.

Gillian Cooper, energy policy manager at the charity Citizens Advice, said: “We welcome the government’s call on energy providers to stop forcing people to use prepaid meters. .”

“Millions of people are left in cold, dark and damp homes because they cannot afford to recharge their meters. No one should have to live like this.

“It is now up to the suppliers to do the right thing and put an end to this practice. If they don’t, the government must step in with stronger action. It is also essential that additional safeguards are put in place for people already using prepaid meters.

What energy support is offered?

As prices rise, energy companies are increasing their support for customers, including additional financing for energy-poor customers.

Suppliers in the UK provide discretionary support of around £54 million on top of the more than £1 billion mandatory schemes they offer each year, according to Energy UK.

This includes the utility company obligation and the Warm Homes rebate.

Suppliers have already implemented payment holidays, payment plans and credit advances to customers on prepaid meters.

Other measures include:

  • Eligible British Gas customers are offered grants ranging from £250 to £750
  • EDF Energy is contacting 100,000 vulnerable customers to provide personalized help and access to apps like Energy Hub, which can help them cut their bills by an extra £100
  • Octopus set up a £5million financial hardship fund at the start of the energy crisis dedicated to helping customers who cannot afford the cost of living
  • Utilita launches hardship fund to help customers cancel debt

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