Energy regulator Ofgem has confirmed it is allowing Octopus Energy, EDF and Scottish Power to resume force-fitting prepayment meters in people’s homes. Here’s what you need to know.
Ofgem says the three suppliers have met the conditions of a “strict” new code of a practice it outlined in September 2023. It means the firms will once again be able to install prepayment meters in customers’ homes to recover debt.
It comes almost a year after an exposé of the practice by The Times led to a temporary ban on what the industry calls ‘involuntary installations’. The newspaper revealed British Gas debt agents were breaking into the homes of vulnerable people to install pay-as-you-go meters.
If you’re struggling to pay, we have a guide to all the help with your energy bills that’s available. Also see our energy comparison guide for what you need to know if you’re considering switching to a new supplier. It’s also worth looking at our guides to the cost of living support that’s available, including cold weather payments and the warm home discount.
So, what has Ofgem said – and does it necessarily mean you’ll be forced to have a prepayment meter? Here’s everything you need to know.
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What are Ofgem’s new prepayment force-fitting rules?
New guidelines Ofgem announced in September 2023 mean suppliers must now jump through more hoops if they’re going to force-fit a prepayment meter (ie, install a pay as you go meter without your permission). These rules came into force in December 2023. As well as treating force-fitting as a last resort, electricity and gas providers must:
- Make at least 10 attempts to contact a customer
- Carry out a site welfare visit before a force-fitting
- Not do installations in households containing high-risk customers, including:
- Households requiring a continuous energy supply for health reasons (eg, dependence on powered medical equipment);
- Households where all occupants are aged 75+ if there is no other support (eg, a carer) in the house;
- Households with children aged under two years old;
- Households with residents who’ve got severe health issues, including terminal illnesses or those with a medical dependency on a warm home (eg, due to illness such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and sickle cell disease).
- Seriously consider whether to install a PAYG meter if the household contains:
- Kids under the age of five;
- People with serious health conditions such as, neurological diseases (eg, Parkinson’s), respiratory conditions, and conditions that limit mobility (eg, osteoporosis, muscular Dystrophy, and MS);
- Occupants with other special needs or mental health conditions, such as clinical depression, learning difficulties or Alzheimer’s
- People who are in the midst of challenging temporary situations, like pregnancy or a bereavement.
Before force-fitting is even considered, energy suppliers also now have to run through a series of actions. These include, contacting people if they miss two monthly or quarterly payments, and offering affordable payment plans or payment holidays.
Ofgem has urged consumers to reach out to their energy supplier as quickly as they can if they need help to pay their bills. Most UK providers offer support schemes to help their customers through tough times. The regulator has also highlighted the Energy Ombudsman, which households can approach if they have a complaint about their supplier.
Another bit of advice the regulator has given is to make sure your personal details and circumstances are fully up-to-date with your supplier. That way, they could be “taken into consideration [by your supplier] if or when payment problems arise,” it said.
What about other suppliers?
Other suppliers will only be allowed to resume force-fitting if they meet certain requirements. These include undertaking an audit of their operations to identify where they wrongfully installed PAYG meters before February 2023. They then have to compensate affected households and return them to a credit meter.
Providers must also commission an independent assessment of their prepayment meter practices. And when they do resume force-fitting, they have to regularly share data with Ofgem, so that the regulator can identify “concerning practices” early.
What does Ofgem say?
Octopus, EDF and Scottish Power customers could now be moved onto prepayment meters if they don’t keep up with their energy bills. The energy regulator underlined that the practice should be “a matter of last resort”. It has added that any energy suppliers who don’t follow its rules could face “tough action or fines”.
“Protecting consumers is our number one priority. We’ve made clear that suppliers must exhaust all other options before considering forced installation of a prepayment meter, and consumers can help themselves by reaching out to their supplier as soon as possible if they think they won’t be able to pay their bill, so payment options can be discussed,” said Tim Jarvis, Ofgem’s director general for markets.
“Our rules on when, and how, a prepayment meter can be installed are clear and we won’t hesitate to take action if suppliers act irresponsibly. 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.”
What do energy suppliers say?
Reacting to the news, Octopus Energy said it has “no plans” to restart force-fitting prepayment meters. It added that it has only ever carried out 32 forced installations in its eight-year history.
A spokesperson said: “We have plenty of options in place to help support customers that are struggling with their debt and it’s incredibly important to us that customers know what these options are.” These include measures, such as its Octo Assist fund, and its scheme to offer free electric blankets to its most vulnerable customers.
An EDF spokesperson said: “We have a duty to keep bills as low as possible, especially given customers are struggling, and rising debt levels are leading to all households facing bigger bills. It is important to restart, under strict supervision from the regulator, processes that help individual customers get out of debt and protect all customers from additional charges. Smart pay-as-you-go meters provide the cheapest rates, without needing to visit a shop to top-up, and enable us to provide support quickly if customers run into difficulty.”
EDF added that it has bolstered its winter support by £15 million , with the now-£40+ million pot being used to help people with energy debt.
A Scottish Power spokesperson told us: “While we have met Ofgem’s strict criteria and been authorised to restart involuntary prepayment meter installations, where appropriate, this is always a last resort. Our focus will continue to be on supporting our customers to manage their debt and avoid the need for such action.
“If any customer is struggling to pay, we would urge them to contact us or speak to a debt charity right away, so we can take their situation into account and get them the help they need. Talking to us will also allow us to determine whether a prepayment meter is appropriate for their individual circumstances or not, in line with the regulator’s strict rules and licence conditions which we have met.”