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Energy firms slammed for rise in forced prepayment meter installations

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Energy suppliers have been criticised for their overuse of court orders to forcibly install prepayment meters in the homes of customers in debt.

Suppliers are meant to put indebted customers on a repayment plan first and only install a prepayment meter by force using a warrant obtained by a court order as a last resort.

But the number of meters installed under warrant rose last year to 84,000 from 81,000 in 2016, according to Ofgem.

The energy regulator found three suppliers – Utility Warehouse, British Gas, and OVO Energy – forcibly installed a much higher proportion of meters for newly indebted customers than the industry average.

Rob Salter-Church, interim executive director of consumers and markets at Ofgem, said: “Some suppliers are very frequently using force to recover debt. Instead, they need to identify struggling customers and support them in paying money back as our rules require.”

This year, Ofgem banned forcible installations for the most vulnerable and capped charges at £150.

But the regulator said it was concerned customers who owe money are not getting the support they need from suppliers to help pay debt back, particularly customers of smaller and medium suppliers, who on average have 25% of indebted customers on a repayment plan compared to 58% for larger suppliers.

Gillian Guy, chief executive at Citizens Advice, said: “It’s troubling to see the numbers of forced prepayment meter installations creeping up.

“Energy suppliers have a responsibility to support vulnerable customers, and should only install prepayment meters under warrant as a last resort. Anyone worried about paying their energy bill should contact their energy supplier and ask for an affordable payment plan.”

A British Gas spokesperson said: “Warrants are only ever issued as a last resort and we have seen a decrease in the numbers carried out this year. Warrants are a way of keeping a customer’s energy supply running when they are in debt and have not contacted us about their bills.”

An OVO Energy spokesperson said: “Ofgem’s report does not reflect the significant changes made by OVO Energy in August 2017 to our escalated collections processes, specifically the use of warrants. In the nine months since those changes were made, OVO Energy has installed less than 10 prepayment meters under warrant as a last resort, and none were installed between September 2017 and February 2018.”

A Utility Warehouse spokesperson said: “We only ever install prepayment meters under warrant as a last resort – and we’ve seen a marked decrease in the number we’ve installed in the past 12 months.”

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