Energy companies have been forced to spell out how they will support customers who have wrongly had prepayment meters force-fitted. A recent investigation found that 500,000 court warrants have been issued since July 2021 allowing energy firms to send debt agents to break into homes and install pay-as-you go energy meters when they fall behind on payments.
But last week, industry regulator Ofgem ordered suppliers to slam the brakes on the practice after a shocking undercover investigation by the Times revealed that British Gas was using a third-party agent to install meters in vulnerable customers’ homes.
Now, Business Secretary Grant Shapps is demanding energy companies detail the measures they will take to support affected customers by Tuesday.
He wants Ofgem to set up a new reporting system to allow customers to record their experience of dealing with these energy companies. Mr Shapps also urged the regulator to bolster its reviewing structures.
Mr Shapps said: ”I am appalled that vulnerable customers struggling with their energy bills have had their homes invaded and prepayment meters installed when there is a clear duty on suppliers to provide them with support.
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“They need to refocus their efforts on their consumers, the British public, who are at the receiving end of this abhorrent behaviour.
“I’m also concerned the regulator is too easily having the wool pulled over their eyes by taking at face value what energy companies are telling them. They need to also listen to customers to make sure this treatment of vulnerable consumers doesn’t happen again.”
This comes after energy companies received over 140,000 complaints about their treatment of customers in debt last year alone, an investigation by openDemocracy found. Up to 33,000 of those complaints were concerned with the fitting or disconnecting of prepayment meters.
Ofgem has since admitted that “the picture presented by companies may not accurately reflect what is experienced by customers on the ground”.
However, eyebrows have been raised as to why Ofgem only reacted following the Times’ investigation. Ruth London, co-founder of the Fuel Poverty Action campaign group, told openDemocracy: “Ofgem has known about this crisis for years, and so have the companies themselves. Suppliers are not being honest when they act like they’ve just discovered it and they’re shocked, like the CEO of Centrica did yesterday.”
Previously speaking to Express.co.uk, Helen Lord, CEO of the Vulnerability Registration Service, said that prepayment meter installations have been happening for as long as she can remember.
She said: ”It is not a new issue. The difference now is that, particularly with society’s most vulnerable people, there is suddenly more awareness of it and the impact it is having.”
Ms Lord added: “It’s highly distressing and intrusive for people who are already in severe difficulties. These are vulnerable people who are already at breaking point, often already facing extreme levels of debt, mentally unable to understand their finances or manage their day-to-day tasks or physically far more reliant on services from their utility providers.”
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Under current rules, energy companies must report the number of complaints they receive from customers to Ofgem every month.
Between January and October last year, they received 146,046 complaints regarding disconnection and debt issues. This includes complaints from customers about their energy supply being disconnected or having a prepayment meter installed forcibly, even without a warrant or despite them being vulnerable.
However, the regulator has also said that exposing how many complaints different companies had received would breach Section 105 of the 2000 Utilities Act. Under this law, the public disclosure of information companies supply to the regulator is banned under national security grounds.
Meanwhile, complaints to made to the Energy Ombudsman have also hit record highs. Up to 105,340 complaints were received by the Ombudsman in 2022, a jump of nearly 20,000 complaints since last year.
Customers can appeal to the Energy Ombudsman to independently examine disputes between them and their supplier if the supplier leaves an issue unresolved or fails to sufficiently address a problem. Of the cases heard, 75 percent ended up being resolved in the customer’s favour.
Since The Times’ investigation, Jonathan Brearley, Ofgem’s chief executive said he has asked suppliers to review the use of court warrants.
He said: “Suppliers need to reassure us that the processes for customers being moved on to PPMs are compliant with all Ofgem rules and, until this is done, we have asked them to pause forced installations.”
Express.co.uk has approached Ofgem for comment.
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