Spineless Ofgem has just allowed energy firms to restart forcing people onto prepayment meters

The energy regulator Ofgem has just agreed that three energy firms can start forcing vulnerable customers onto prepayment meters again. It comes after the government put a quasi ban in place in February 2023. One campaign group has hit back at the move – saying Ofgem is once again putting “energy company profits” before customers. And overall, it shows just how spineless the energy regulator is.

Ofgem prepayment meters: an ongoing scandal

As the Canary reported back in February, energy companies in the UK could obtain court warrants that allowed them to enter people’s homes and fit the pay-as-you-go (‘prepayment’) meters. This was when customers had fallen into arrears with their energy bills. They were then at risk of companies cutting their gas supply off if they fail to top them up.

However, an undercover investigation by the Times newspaper looked into this. It found that contractors working for British Gas sent debt collectors to “break into” homes and “force-fit” meters. This prompted uproar from the public and politicians – even though the practice had actually been going on since 1954.

So, the energy regulator Ofgem and courts stopped energy suppliers from forcing customers to have prepayment meters. However, as the Morning Star reported:

Ofgem introduced a self-regulating code of practice for energy providers enabling them to resume forced break-ins and installations.

Scottish Power has now reportedly secured warrants and broken into the homes of mothers with young children to force them onto prepay meters using the code. But the firm claims it was unaware of the customers’ circumstances and would not have installed a meter forcibly had this become clear.

Now, Ofgem has looked at how companies are dealing with that self-regulating code. It’s decided that three are suddenly so responsible that they can start forcing prepayment meters onto customers.

Ofgem: spineless AND not fit for purpose

As the energy regulator itself wrote on its website:

Ofgem confirmed today (Monday 8 January 2023) that EDF, Octopus and Scottish Power have been given permission to restart involuntary PPM installations after meeting the regulator’s set of conditions, which include conducting internal audits to identify wrongfully installed PPMs and committing to reinstating non-prepayment methods and offering compensation. Suppliers must also provide regular monitoring data to Ofgem, so that concerning trends on involuntary PPM practices can be identified early.

The regulator also announced that if suppliers install a PPM in a property occupied by someone in the ‘do not install’ category set out in Ofgem’s Supplier Licence Conditions, and have not followed the rules in full set out by the regulator to make sure a prepayment meter is appropriate, they are expected to reinstate a credit meter within 24 hours and compensate their customers appropriately.

Ofgem is reminding supplier CEOs that the rules must be followed to the letter to avoid a re-run of some of the practices seen last year where vulnerable customers in energy debt were being moved onto PPMs without their consent.

But who exactly does Ofgem consider a “vulnerable” customer?

Vulnerable who?

The energy regulator says vulnerable customers are those with:

  • A continuous supply needed for health reasons, including dependence on powered medical equipment.
  • An older occupant (aged 75+), without support in the house.
  • Children aged under two years old.
  • Residents with severe health issues including terminal illnesses or those with a medical dependency on a warm home (for example due to illness such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, sickle cell disease).

So, if you’re a lone parent with a child aged two years and one month – then you can freeze. If you’re aged over 75, but your council will not provide support workers for you due to funding cuts – then you can freeze. Oh, and so can anyone else who doesn’t meet Ofgem’s wafer-thin criteria of vulnerability.

But it’s OK! Ofgem has said energy firms have to make at least 10 attempts to contact a customer before they can force their way into their home and install a prepayment meter. That means that if you live with enduring mental distress which restricts your ability to deal with the authorities, strangers, or companies – then you can freeze too.

Happy new year from Ofgem

For his part, the director general for markets at Ofgem Tim Jarvis (we don’t know what his bullshit job is but we’re confident he’s never been on a prepayment meter) said:

Protecting consumers is our number one priority…

While nobody wants to see the practices uncovered last year repeated, we also know that allowing households to build up unsustainable amounts of debt isn’t the right thing to do either. Many households value the control that these pay as you go meters offer over bills and how they can help with budgeting, and suppliers must also be able to recover debt to make sure those costs don’t end up on everyone else’s bills.

‘Protecting customers’ is demonstrably NOT Ofgem’s priority – otherwise it wouldn’t allow energy companies to ever forcibly install prepayment meters.

Stu Bretherton from campaign group Fuel Poverty Action told the Canary:

Energy firms have proven time and again that they can’t be trusted with this dangerous practice. Just two months ago, Scottish Power was granted warrants impacting families with newborn babies. We need an outright ban but Ofgem continually puts energy company profits first, even when doing so will put lives at risk this winter.

So, it’s a new year but the same old story from Ofgem. The poorest people in the UK can freeze so long as private energy companies’ profits are protected.

Featured image via the Canary

By The Canary

This post was originally published on Canary.