Stop forcing people on to prepayment meters, UK minister urges suppliers | Energy bills

The business secretary has urged energy suppliers to stop forcibly switching households struggling with energy bills to prepayment meters, after calls for government action amid a surge in cases.

Grant Shapps has written to companies saying he wants them to voluntarily end the practice of moving households on to more expensive prepaid energy tariffs against their will and promising to “name and shame” the worst offenders.

Energy firms should instead make greater efforts to help those struggling to pay their bills, such as offering credit or debt advice, Shapps told them, suggesting prepay installations should be a last resort. He also asked suppliers to reveal the number of warrant applications made to forcibly enter properties to install meters.

Earlier this month, the Guardian revealed that 3.2 million people – the equivalent of one person every 10 seconds – were left with cold and dark homes last year as they ran out of prepay credit, according to Citizens Advice data.

Courts have been inundated with requests from suppliers to forcibly switch customers, with data obtained from the Ministry of Justice through a freedom of information request revealing hundreds of warrants of entry are being signed off in minutes in huge batches by magistrates.

Ministers have been urged by fuel poverty charities and a cross-party coalition of MPs to halt the practice of forcibly installing prepayment meters, with Labour calling for a three-month moratorium.

However, the government is resisting such a ban amid concerns over a subsequent increase in bailiff action.

Shapps said: “Suppliers are clearly jumping the gun and moving at-risk customers on to prepayment meters before offering them the support they are entitled to – I simply cannot believe that every possible alternative has been exhausted in all these cases.

“I am deeply concerned to see reports of customers being switched to prepayment meters against their will, with some disconnected from supply – and quite literally left in the dark.

“Rather than immediately reaching for a new way to extract money out of customers, I want suppliers to stop this practice and lend a more sympathetic ear, offering the kind of forbearance and support that a vulnerable customer struggling to pay should be able to expect.”

It comes after hundreds of thousands of customers have been switched over to more costly prepayment meters, often unwillingly and without the offer of support, after failing to keep up with rising energy payments.

Some have found their smart meters switched to prepayment mode remotely while others have been confronted at their door by teams sent by energy companies – armed with magistrates court warrants – to physically make the change.

Campaigners say those who have been switched often then go without power as they cannot afford to top up the meter – something that is referred to as “self-disconnection”.

Energy bills have soared due to rampant inflation and the spike in gas and electricity prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Citizens Advice welcomed the government’s call for energy suppliers to stop forcing people on to prepayment meters as a first response.

Its head of energy policy, Gillian Cooper, said: “It’s now up to suppliers to do the right thing and end this practice. If they don’t, the government must step in with stronger action. It’s also vital further protections are brought in for people already using prepayment meters.”

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