Energy suppliers have agreed to stop forcibly installing prepayment meters in the homes of vulnerable people. Why was it happening in the first place?
“Hello, it’s British Gas, your gas supplier. We’re here with a court warrant. Can you please open your door, otherwise we have a locksmith that’ll open it for you.”The Times undercover investigation
It took an undercover investigation from The Times to expose how energy firms were behaving.
Debt collector: “This is the exciting bit, I love this bit.”The Times undercover investigation
Reporter: “Which bit?”
Debt collector: “This bit. I love this bit.”
Debt collectors were being used to break into people’s homes and force them to use pay-as-you-go meters.
Prepayment meters require users to pay for their energy in advance by going to a shop or using a smartphone app to top up.
Four million UK households use them, but they can be tricky for people who aren’t tech savvy or can’t get to the shops easily.
And they’re expensive too.
Prepayment tends to cost more than paying for your energy by direct debit and if your meter runs out of money you get cut off.
More than 3 million people on prepayment meters in the UK were left without heat or light at some point last year. And more than 2 million were being cut off at least once a month.
In some cases that can have serious consequences. According to the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, more than 1,000 people died in England in December due to living in cold homes.
So why were people being forced onto prepayment meters?
“The Bank of England governor thinks we are facing a historic squeeze as a result of this energy crisis. The shock from energy prices this year will be larger than any single year in the 1970s.”Sky News
The government’s Energy Price Guarantee currently caps consumer energy bills at £2,500 a year for a typical household.
Back in mid-2020, a typical customer paid just £1,100 a year for gas and electricity.
And it means more people are being pushed into poverty.
“As the days get colder, many are faced with a terrible choice, heat the home or feed the family.”PBS NewsHour
Energy suppliers are only meant to install prepayment meters for customers as a last resort. For example, when someone is refusing to pay their bills.
Vulnerable households are supposed to be protected from having them fitted forcibly but The Times discovered that among those who had their homes broken into were a 77-year-old man and a young mother with four children, including a three-week-old baby.
“If they’re just saying, ‘oh, I’m a single mum and I’ve got three kids…’ that’s not a vulnerability. It is a vulnerability but I’m a bit old school and a bit hard-nosed.”The Times undercover investigation
The debt collection companies hired by energy firms to do the work are allowed to legally enter the properties because they get a warrant from a magistrates court.
The Guardian recently revealed that more than 30,000 warrants had been issued by magistrates since the beginning of this year alone.
Some were approving hundreds of applications at a time.
But that’s now changed.
After the Times investigation, the energy regulator, Ofgem, told energy companies to stop forcibly installing the meters.
And one of the country’s most senior judges told the courts to stop issuing warrants until further notice.
Ofgem is now investigating energy suppliers, and could even take legal action against firms that haven’t taken proper care of vulnerable households.
British Gas has said it will suspend forcibly installing prepayment meters until after winter.
By that time, Britain might be over the worst of the cold weather.
But many customers will still be struggling.
In April, prices are expected to rise again, because the government plans to reduce the help on offer through the Energy Price Guarantee. That means the average household energy bill will go up from £2,500 a year to £3,000.
The owner of British Gas, Centrica, just reported record profits of £3.3 billion pounds, more than triple what it made in 2021.
They’re having a much better time than millions of households across the country.
This episode was written and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.