Forced meter suspension will last for six weekson February 15, 2023 at 4:12 pm

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The energy watchdog has told suppliers to halt forced installations until the end of March 2023.

person turns radiatorImage source, Getty Images

The energy watchdog has said suppliers’ suspension of forced prepayment meter installations will last for the next six weeks.

It was revealed earlier this month that debt agents for British Gas had broken into vulnerable people’s homes to force-fit meters.

Ofgem subsequently halted the practice and has now said the suspension will last until the end of March.

The regulator said all domestic suppliers had agreed to do so.

In a letter to suppliers on Wednesday, Ofgem said it would consult on how firms should use prepayment meters and whether rules need to be changed.

Remote transfers to prepayment meters must also be halted for six weeks.

Next week, on 21 February, it will publish an update on the scope and timelines of its Market Compliance Review on prepayment meter warrant installations and remote mode switching.

Energy firms suspended forced meter installations after it was revealed that British Gas agents had broken into vulnerable people’s homes to fit meters.

After the story was published by The Times, Chris O’Shea, the boss of Centrica which owns British Gas, told the BBC: “It is completely unacceptable.”

Ofgem said: “The energy crisis is no excuse for unacceptable behaviour towards any customer, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances.”

It asked suppliers to suspend installations and review the use of court warrants to enter the homes of customers in arrears.

British Gas said it would suspend forcefully installing prepayment meters until at least after the winter. Wednesday’s letter makes it clear that the suspension will last until spring.

The letter reveals that Ofgem requested suppliers to halt forced installations during a meeting last week.

It made clear that: “For the avoidance of doubt, this includes ceasing installation by warrant, ceasing the remote mode switch of smart meters to pre-payment without explicit agreement from the customer, and ceasing new applications to court for installation warrants – unless theft is suspected.”

Ofgem said some suppliers had warned that unrecoverable debts could climb if prepayment meters couldn’t be fitted.

That would increase their costs, suppliers said, which could in turn lead to larger bills for other customers.

The regulator said it was examining closely how customer debts affect suppliers’ costs and was working to “determine what action we need to take”.

Prepayment meter rules

There are more than four million UK households on prepayment meters. The current rules state:

  • Customers pay for their energy in advance, either through an account or using a top-up card. Emergency credit is available
  • The cost per unit of energy is higher than direct debit, because of the costs involved for suppliers. Sometimes it is the only option for people already in debt to a supplier
  • Some customers who do not pay regular bills can be moved to prepayment, either remotely on a smart meter, or physically under the power of a court warrant
  • Suppliers are required to have exhausted all other options before installing a prepayment meter, and should not do so for vulnerable customers, including the elderly and those with young children

They could be changed after Ofgem’s consultation, which will include talking to energy suppliers, consumer groups and charities to consider the rules and guidance on the use of pre-payment meters, not just during “the current exceptional circumstances” but in future, too.

Centrica results

British Gas owner Centrica is set to announce its annual results on Thursday. It is expected to post record profits of around £3bn, close to four times the £761m profit Centrica made in 2021.

That was before gas prices soared on the back of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and it could provoke fresh accusations of profiteering by energy firms.

Chief executive Chris O’Shea is in line for a potential £1.6m bonus, which would be paid out on top of his £795,000 salary.

British Gas is the UK’s largest energy company supplying around 10 million homes.

Rival supplier EDF, owned by the French government, will publish its 2022 profit figures on Friday. It supplies energy to around five million British homes.

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