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Tighter rules for prepayment meter installations: 10 things suppliers can and can’t do now

Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

The energy regulator has unveiled its updated code of practice when it comes to involuntary prepayment meter (PPM) installations following the scandal over their use for vulnerable households.

Ofgem confirmed all British domestic energy suppliers have signed up to the updated code of practice over PPM installations under warrant or remote switches without consent.

It comes after a shocking investigation by The Times revealed third party agents working on behalf of British Gas broke into the homes of vulnerable customers to install the pay-as-you-go meters without the billpayer’s permission.

Here are 10 rules suppliers now need to follow when it comes to involuntary PPM installations:

1) Suppliers are banned from installing a PPM at households with a “very elderly occupant”, aged 85+, if there is no other support in the house.

2) They will also not be allowed to fit the meters to households that need a continuous energy supply for health reasons, such as for those dependent on powered medical equipment (heart/lung ventilators, dialysis equipment, stair lift or hoist, refrigerated medication, or for those who need a warm home for medical reasons). It also includes those with a terminal health condition such as cancer or respiratory disease or organ failure.

3) Suppliers should “refrain from all involuntary installations” for other high-risk customers for households where there is no one who has the ability to top up their meter due to a physical or mental incapacity.

4) At least 10 attempts to contact a billpayer must be made before a PPM is installed and suppliers should install smart meters by default when doing this under warrant. The 10 attempts must be via multiple communication methods such as writing, phone and site visits.

5) A site welfare visit is required in all cases before a PPM can be installed.

6) Suppliers can’t fit PPMs for a debt outstanding less than three months after a bill is issued, or less than £200 per fuel, or where a customer is moving onto a repayment plan.

7) Households who are switched onto a PPM will be given £30 credit per meter as a short-term credit/measure “to remove the risk of customers going off supply”.

8) Installations should be assessed on a “case-by-case basis” when it comes to households with children under the age of five, or those aged 75+, as well as temporary situations including pregnancy or bereavement. Further, Ofgem rules state: “We also encourage suppliers to consider whether a PPM is safe and reasonably practicable for any household with adults over 65, and/or children under 16”.

9) Audio or body cameras will be worn by the lead supplier representative who will be present on all warrant installations or site welfare visits to “check for vulnerabilities ahead of an involuntary installation or remote mode switch”, with the footage available for audit.

10) Aftercare: Once a meter has been installed, the supplier must make at least three attempts to contact the customer in the first fortnight, with the first within 72 hours to check that they know how to use the meter and how to top up.

Ofgem added that suppliers also need to meet five conditions before restarting involuntary PPM installations, which includes a plan on how they will implement the new code of conduct, audit to find whether previous meters had been wrongfully installed and where they have, offer compensation and a return to a non-PPM method.

The regulator is currently investigating the industry following the scandal earlier this year and said that ultimately, it will decide if a supplier can restart installations. Suppliers will also need to submit regular data to Ofgem to help it “spot concerning trends on involuntary PPM practices”.

‘Prepayment meters a last resort’

Jonathan Brearley, CEO of Ofgem, said: “Ofgem’s new voluntary Code of Practice is a minimum standard that clearly sets out steps all suppliers must take before moving to a PPM. If and when involuntary PPMs are used, it must be as a last resort, and customers in vulnerable situations will be given the extra care and consideration they deserve, over and above the rules already in place, by suppliers – something that has clearly not always been happening.

“This new Code of Practice means, for some people, PPMs should never be installed, and, for high-risk groups, their energy needs must be protected with a higher level of consideration. The Code requires suppliers to become more attuned to the needs of all their customers in vulnerable situations, including if their circumstances change and reassessing if or when they do, and apply better compassion and professional expertise.”

Brearley added that Ofgem expects the overall number of involuntary PPM installations to fall over time, but recognises “that a careful balance is required to help manage debt, while protecting customers in vulnerable situations”.

“We will be turning this Code into clear rules and regulations, and will be assessing its impact and taking further views from stakeholders as we do so. Equally, we continue to work with Government and others to tackle wider affordability issues and move towards a sustainable, longer-term solution to ensure energy needs are affordable for all consumers, such as a social tariff and, eventually, cheaper, renewable, homegrown energy for all.”

‘More action need to protect the vulnerable’

Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “This voluntary code of practice is a much needed improvement in the protections people have against the forced installation of a prepayment meter by energy companies.

“It’s now up to suppliers to follow the rules and for Ofgem to crack down quickly on any sign of bad practice. The regulator must also act swiftly to make this voluntary code mandatory.

“For too many the damage has already been done. Suppliers must now check that none of their existing customers are paying for their energy via a prepay meter when it’s not a safe option for them.”

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, said: “We have long called for more action to protect those most vulnerable from the harm caused by the forced installation of prepayment meters – this new guidance from Ofgem is welcome, if overdue.

“Whilst this code of practice sets out more strongly how energy suppliers should act, it is only voluntary, and there are significant gaps in the protection it offers. Ofgem needs to make this guidance mandatory as soon as possible, especially as forced installation of prepayment meters continues to be an option for suppliers.

“Better protections for people who have fallen behind on their energy bills are also needed. This should include the option for debt write-off or payment matching.

“Anyone who is worried about their energy bills should contact a free debt advice service, like National Debtline.”