On Sunday (5 February) Grant Shapps called on Ofgem to “toughen up on energy suppliers” following reports of forced prepayment meter installations by British Gas.
An expose in the Times last week found that “even those with small children or medical conditions have not been shown forbearance” according to the Government, with debt collectors breaking into homes to install prepayment meters.
British Gas has since admitted fault, and suspended all prepayment warrant activity for the winter at least.
However, Shapps highlighted that the findings of the Times follow several reviews by the regulator of supplier activities, which failed to identify the unacceptable behaviour or other shortcomings.
As such, the minister – who was today appointed as the first Secretary of Statement for the newly unveiled Department for Energy Security and Net Zero – has told Ofgem to toughen up and investigate customer experiences when evaluating how a supplier is performing.
The regulator should set up a new customer reporting system, he added, to allow households to pass on their own stories of how they’re being created by their supplier, moving away from a system that relies on energy firm bosses to share stories.
“I am appalled that vulnerable customers struggling with their energy bills have had their homes invaded and prepayment meters installed when there is a clear duty on suppliers to provide them with support. They need to refocus their efforts on their consumers, the British public, who are at the receiving end of this abhorrent behaviour,” said Shapps.
“I’m also concerned the regulator is too easily having the wool pulled over their eyes by taking at face value what energy companies are telling them. They need to also listen to customers to make sure this treatment of vulnerable consumers doesn’t happen again.”
In addition to this call on Ofgem to ensure the voices of consumers, and in particular vulnerable consumers, are heard, Shapps has also given energy supplier bosses a deadline of today (Tuesday 7 February) to report back to him on the remedial actions they intend to take should they have wrongfully installed prepayment meters in the homes of vulnerable customers.
A number of suppliers have already announced that they have suspended the forced installations of prepayment meters after the article in the Times last week, while they reassured the regulator that they are complying with regulations.
The report into British Gas’s forced installations follows evidence presented by Humane Energy in January, and picked up by Shapps for a BEIS investigation, into suppliers switching smart meters to prepayment when a household’s account falls into arears.
Amid the wider energy crisis, the number of households falling into debt with suppliers has increased significantly.
However, according to recent analysis by Octopus Energy, using prepayment as opposed to a direct debit can cost up to £254 extra annually. This is more than three times the cost of what it was in April 2021 when the figure stood at £84.
The scandal around the force fitting of prepayment meters comes as Ofgem found all 17 of the UK’s largest energy suppliers to have weaknesses in consumer practices.