Energy firms force-fitted record numbers of prepayment meters in UK’s poorest homes using court warrants last year as energy bills rocketed, i can reveal.
Data from energy companies, obtained by i from the regulator Ofgem, shows the number of gas and electricity prepayment meters installed for debt after a warrant was issued increased 41 percent compared with 2021.
It shows 47,286 electricity meters and 45,130 gas meters were fitted on a warrant visit in 2022 because customers were in debt, with at least 47,000 households affected as the cost of living crisis gripped the UK.
The meters are hugely controversial because they can force desperate families to live in the cold and dark.
A four-month investigation by i has revealed how courts were granting hundreds of the warrants to firms’ debt agents in a matter of minutes last year before one of the country’s most senior judges told them in February to stop processing them immediately.
In total, just 72 applications for warrants to force entry into properties were rejected by magistrates in 2022, raising major concerns over the level of oversight for vulnerable customers.
The meters are hugely controversial because they can force desperate families to live in the cold and dark. Families described to i how children have suffered asthma and pneumonia attacks after they ran out of credit and were unable to afford to top up prepay meters in freezing conditions.
The warrants enable debt agents to force entry into a house or flat using a locksmith so an engineer can fit the meters while people are not at home. Householders can be charged up to £150 on top of their debts for having one of the meters installed under a warrant.
Last month, Grant Shapps, the Energy Security Secretary said he was “appalled” that vulnerable customers had had “their homes invaded” by debt collectors to force-fit the meters and firms should consider compensating those who have had them wrongly installed.
Lord Justice Edis, the presiding magistrate for England and Wales, then told courts to stop processing the warrants “with immediate effect”.
Ofgem said this week the ban on forced prepay meter installation would continue beyond the end of March and they would only restart if firms signed a legally enforceable code of practice, with tougher protections for vulnerable customers.
The body is currently running three parallel investigations into prepayment meters including the biggest ever national market review of the devices and a review of all rules, regulations and guidance.
Gillian Cooper, head of energy policy at Citizens Advice, which had warned of the coming fuel poverty crisis as early as January last year, said: “This is yet more shocking evidence of the sheer number of people coming home to the stress of a picked lock and a prepayment meter.
“Thankfully the temporary ban on forced installations has been extended beyond 1 April, sparing many from the anxiety caused by this often-invasive practice in the coming weeks. This must be kept in place until new protections are brought in.
“Suppliers must now conduct a thorough review of all prepayment customers. No-one should be left paying for their energy this way if it’s not a safe option for them.”
Anne McLoughlin MP, who has been campaigning on the issue, said she was “stunned” by the increase in meters forcibly installed last year.
She said: “A cynic might think the energy suppliers were doing this to protect their profits, knowing many more households would simply be unable to pay their massively increased energy bills.
“The answer for those companies is to get people on to these meters so that when they run out of money, instead of building up debt, they simply go without heat or light.”
Dan Carden MP said: “These figures reflect the sense of impunity with which energy companies and debt agents working on their behalf carried out this abusive practice. Energy companies must now take steps to compensate vulnerable households who were targeted and remove the meters at not cost to the customer.”
Caroline Lucas MP said: “The need for heating and electricity is literally a matter of life or death for so many households in fuel poverty. Yet debt companies are exploiting these vulnerable people by forcibly installing thousands of pre-payment meters. This is a national scandal.”
A debt collecting agency boss, Les Johnston, the chief executive of Richburns, claimed at a Commons select committee hearing this week that only 4 per cent of the customer files they received from energy firms resulted in the force-fitting of a meter.
But he also revealed that the firm only gets paid for a warrant being executed and that agents are “incentivised for a positive outcome”, including if the customer agrees to pay all or part of their debt, adding: “The longer the agent spends at the door, we reward that.”
Chris O’Shea, the chief executive of British Gas owner Centrica, claimed at the same hearing: “The number of prepayment meters installed under warrant has actually reduced for British Gas.”
Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said: “Only this week, MPs heard assurances that the barbaric forced installation process was only used sparingly.
“But once again, we now find out the truth, that homes have been forced onto more expensive prepayment meters on an industrial scale.
“This only heightens the importance of Ofgem and MPs’ inquiries into the scandal and reinforces the need for comprehensive compensation for victims.”
A spokesman for industry body Energy UK said: “The Ofgem figures show that, with energy bills rising steeply, there was a sharp increase in the number of customers in debt last year – as well as those without a repayment plan.”
The spokesman said “suppliers know” that many customers are struggling with their bills “and that’s why they must have exhausted all other options” before installing a prepayment meter under warrant, including checks to ensure they do not go ahead “when customers are in the most vulnerable situations”.
He added: “However, suppliers also have a responsibility to prevent customers falling further into arrears and increasing the amount that has to be recouped from all customer bills – and prepayment meters play a role in doing that.”