Nearly half a million warrants allowing energy firms to install prepayment meters in the UK’s poorest homes have been granted since Britain came out of the Covid lockdown
Nearly half a million warrants allowing energy firms to forcibly install prepayment meters in the UK’s poorest homes have been granted since Britain came out of the Covid lockdown, it can be revealed.
An i investigation has found that debt collecting agents acting on behalf of the nation’s biggest gas and electricity companies have been handed more than 490,000 warrants to force their way into properties since July 2021.
Since October last year, the number of warrants issued in England and Wales has risen by 18 percent.
i can also reveal how the warrants are being granted through an obscure court process in which magistrates who sign them off have little or no oversight of people’s vulnerability or health issues.
At one court in the North of England, magistrates signed off a single batch of 496 utility warrants in just three minutes and 51 seconds, as a debt agent representing several major energy firms dialled in by telephone.
Prepayment meters are controversial because they are a more expensive way to buy energy, and can leave customers facing a choice between self-disconnecting their electricity or being pushed deeper into debt.
The investigation comes as families across the country are facing the pressure of a deepening winter fuel crisis. National Energy Action has warned that 8.4 million households will be in fuel poverty by April.
Matthew Cole, the head of the Fuel Bank Foundation, which supports people in a fuel crisis, said: “We are seeing people who are new to fuel poverty. We can hear the panic in their voices. They can see the cliff edge approaching.”
‘My son was terrified’
Families have told of being left terrified when energy suppliers’ debt agents turned up on their doorsteps unannounced determined to force their way into their homes.
A mother-of-three, Stacy, who lives in London, says her teenage son was alone in their flat when he discovered a number of men at the door.
The care worker, who had been in a dispute with the supplier over an estimated reading, says she had not been notified they had applied for a warrant to force entry.
She said: “I was at work. My son was terrified. He said, ‘there are men at the door trying to get in to the flat’.
“I ran home. My son was shaking. He was really frightened. One of the men said he was from our energy supplier. It felt like we were being violated. It was horrible.”
The woman felt she had no option eventually but to let the men in after they agreed to put £10 on the meter.
She now spends some days without electricity or gas, saying credit that used to last a week now lasts only a couple of days, but tries to manage the blackouts so her electricity goes off while she is at work.
If it does go off at night, she needs to borrow a power bank from a neighbour so she can top up the meter because the device needs electricity to work.
Meanwhile, a man in Reading said he was left badly shaken when three men turned up at his rented house.
He was also in a dispute about his bill and was still waiting for his case to be resolved when i spoke with him.
“It was lucky I was working from home when they turned up to fit a prepayment meter,” he said.
“I could tell they didn’t expect me to be there. One of them was a big man, much bigger than me. They said he was a locksmith. I was shaking but I managed to not show them I was afraid.
“I wouldn’t let them in. They haven’t been back. It’s been on my mind and I feel I’ve got to move home now and then start with a new energy company.”
i has previously spoken to Natalie Madron, who described being away from home when a neighbour rang to say three men were in her house.
When she got home, she discovered a prepayment meter had been installed with a note saying she had to pay £20 a week on the device to repay her debt, on top of paying for her usage.
Energy firms are also switching smart meters to prepayment meters remotely.
James Collins, who needs a fridge to store insulin for his diabetes, was told by his energy supplier in August his smart meter was being switched to pay-as-you-go the next day.
He said the supplier was aware of his illness because he was on the network’s priority services register – a list kept by energy companies to provide extra support to those in vulnerable situations.
Mr Collins says he wrote in a letter to the firm: “I’m a grown man and after getting no help… I cried and this has repeated every time I think of this issue. I can’t cope with this, it’s too much to bear on top of everything else in life.”
Ofgem figures suggest only 49,552 prepayment electricity and gas meters were installed under warrant in 2021.
Energy firms insist that not all the warrants they obtain are enforced as they later come to arrangements with customers.
However, customers described calling the police on engineers trying to force their way into their homes and in some cases prevented them from entering.
Data obtained by i from the Ministry of Justice using Freedom of Information laws reveals that 490,388 prepayment meter warrants have been granted in England and Wales since July 2021, including 321,213 from January 1 to November 8 this year. Another 4,822 warrants had been granted in Scotland up to the end of October 2022.
In October alone, 34,895 warrants were granted in England and Wales. With energy firms’ agents apparently able to choose which courts they use – often hundreds of miles from customers’ homes – Portsmouth magistrates are granting up to 13,200 warrants a month.
Leeds magistrates have seen the cases increase by 88 per cent, while Croydon, Teesside and Wigan have seen them rise by more than 50 per cent. The vast bulk of warrants were uncontested by customers.
i faced difficulties in trying to find out when and where the utility courts were sitting, with one official saying when we rang to find out: “You don’t want to go there”.
Another official at a different court described how the cases were being processed by administrators through an online application register, adding: “If there are no withdrawals, they are all approved. Then we have to deal with the complaints.”
It became standard practice for courts to deal with the warrants by telephone in October 2019, the same year the online warrants register was rolled out by the HM Courts and Tribunals Service. Only around half of all magistrates’ courts deal with the cases.
Court warrants are used by energy companies to forcibly install prepayment meters when people are heavily in debt on their bills. They can also reportedly remotely switch smart meters to prepayment without needing a warrant to access a property.
A former energy company worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, described how engineers had turned up to forcibly fit the meters with a locksmith and a dog handler and how the police would sometimes be called in advance.
They told i they feared the meters could cause excess deaths this winter, adding: “It’s a national scandal”.
One man had described being left “shaken” when three “thugs” unexpectedly turned up at his door with a warrant. A woman with children said she dialled 999 after a panicked neighbour told her three men were inside her house.
Campaigners have urged the Government to ban energy firms from forcing people on to prepayment meters this winter.
Gillian Cooper, head of energy policy for Citizens Advice, said: “Switching people onto prepayment meters when they fall into debt is disconnection by the backdoor. Hundreds of thousands could be left in cold, dark homes this winter if they can’t afford to top up.”
Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said: “Energy firms keep trying to make us believe that they only use the courts as a last resort to recover debts. This investigation shows that is just not the case.
“Prepayment meters should only ever be used with a customer’s express, informed consent. Forcing them on households against their will this winter is inhumane and will cause increased pressure on the NHS.”
An Ofgem spokesperson said that forced entries “should only ever be a very last resort”, and that the watchdog had “banned installations entirely for the most vulnerable customers”.
“Suppliers’ obligations are clear. Out standards of conduct contain enforceable overarching principles that suppliers must treat all domestic consumers fairly and that suppliers need to make extra effort to identify and respond to the needs of their customers in vulnerable situations.
“We also recently wrote to all suppliers to ask them to stop the process of remotely switching customers on to prepayment meters.”
Energy UK, the industry trade body which represents firms including Centrica Energy, Scottish Power and EDF Energy, says suppliers face “difficult decisions” in dealing with customers in debt on their bills and the warrants are a last resort after “exhausting all other options” and after vulnerability checks are carried out.
A spokeswoman said: “Prepayment meters have been a way of helping customers monitor and budget for their energy usage, but suppliers are very aware of the challenges millions of customers are facing right now.
“There are difficult decisions around indebted customers as suppliers are also required to try to prevent them falling further into arrears and given that any increase in bad debt will ultimately have to be recouped from customers’ bills.”
What are prepayment meters?
Around 4.5 million customers use prepayment energy meters, also known as PPMs. They include people on the lowest incomes and benefits, disabled people, the elderly and people in rented properties.
They pay for their electricity or gas in advance using a top up card, key fob or app in a similar way to a pay-as-you-go mobile phone. Prepayment meters can leave people at risk of self-disconnection.
Why are prepayment meters more expensive?
For some, it is a convenient way to pay but prepayment tariffs tend to be more expensive than for people who pay their bills by monthly direct debit.
In the coldest and darkest months of winter, prepayment tends to be more expensive because people are paying for their bills in real-time when they most need gas and electricity, compared with a monthly direct debit, which spreads out the costs over the year.
Corner shops on housing estates will often only take top-up payments in cash, leaving customers having to use cash machines that charge a vending fee, adding to the cost.
The meters can also be used by energy suppliers to collect debt, with an amount owed deducted from each top up and leaving people with less money to spend on their current energy needs.
What are prepayment meter warrants?
Debt agents acting on behalf of energy companies are able to apply for a warrant to forcibly enter the home of a person in debt on their energy bill to install a prepayment meter. The warrants are signed off by magistrates. There are strict rules around this, including checks being made to ensure no one in the property is vulnerable, and customers should be notified so they can appeal.
However, research by Citizens Advice insists some suppliers are continuing to force-install the meters where they pose a “significant risk” to people.
It says disabled people unable to reach their meter to top up or those with young children, chest conditions, cancer or needing kidney dialysis or refrigerated medicine should never be forced on to a prepayment meter because they can be exposed to serious harm if they go off supply.
i’s investigation has found that hundreds of warrants are being granted by magistrates in batches in minutes without the magistrates being told even the customers’ names or any details of their family, medical or financial circumstances.
Customers have described how they were left shaken and afraid when engineers turned up to force their way into their homes to fit the meters.
What is self-disconnection?
The deeper concern about prepayment meters is that they can ultimately force some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society to self-disconnect their energy supply.
As the cost of energy increases, customers on a prepayment meter will find it harder to pay their bills and can face an impossible choice of getting deeper into debt or not topping up their meter.
Charities say some people are already spending days and nights at a time without gas or electricity. Citizens Advice says it is seeing record levels of people unable to afford to top up.
What are the effects of self-disconnection?
Charity workers dealing with cases across the country have told i how desperate people unable to top up their meter have faced universal credit sanctions or have been unable to order heart medication because they have been unable to charge their phones, or have been unable to make hot food for their children or wash their school uniforms.
Matthew Cole, the head of the Fuel Bank Foundation, says: “It affects everything. It’s not the electricity or gas that stops, it is life that stops. If your broadband router goes off, you can’t work from home. If your freezer starts to defrost, you can’t cook a hot meal for your kids.
“You can’t have a shower when you go out. You can’t wash the kids’ clothes for school.
“Modern homes are designed to be heated. People living without heating can quickly develop respiratory illnesses, which has a knock-on effect on the NHS. It affects people’s mental health.”
What do campaigners and support workers say about prepayment meters?
Campaigners have urged the Government to ban energy firms from forcing people on to prepayment meters this winter.
Fran Lobel, an energy adviser and advocate supporting struggling customers in London, said: “Heat and light are basic rights, like water.
“There should be a permanent ban on warrant installations. It’s a brutal process and an affront to our shared sense of the civilised values we all share.
“The current energy crisis means that many more households will be plunged into fuel poverty this winter.”
Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said forcing more people on to the meters is “inhumane” and will lead to more people self-disconnecting.