Shapps disappointed with energy suppliers' plans over prepayment meters
Energy secretary Grant Shapps has expressed disappointment with how energy suppliers have responded to him after some of them were caught breaking into the homes of vulnerable customers.
Mr Shapps said that he had “only received half the picture” from the suppliers after setting a deadline for them to outline what action they were taking by last Tuesday.
All suppliers had responded by the deadline, but Mr Shapps was not satisfied with their answers, he said on Friday.
It comes as Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said he had no plans to announced any major support for households ahead of a cliff-edge which will see them paying hundreds of pounds extra from the start of April.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) confirmed to the PA news agency that all suppliers had committed to stop force-fitting prepayment meters in any homes, not just those of vulnerable customers.
But many of the suppliers, who were given days to respond to Mr Shapps – failed to address how they would provide redress to customers whose homes were broken into in a way that breaks the rules, officials said.
Suppliers are allowed to apply to courts for a warrant to enter the home of a customer who has not been paying their bills and has not engaged with their supplier.
In extreme cases, the companies bring locksmiths with them when carrying out the fitting, and break into the homes in question.
But they are banned from force-fitting prepayment meters in the homes of customers who are considered vulnerable.
Suppliers often do not have data on whether there is a vulnerable person in a home before they have visited that home.
“I have demanded answers from suppliers, and Ofgem. All suppliers are now halting forced installations, magistrates are no longer signing off warrant applications and Ofgem are upping their game when it comes to their reviews,” Mr Shapps said.
“But I am angered by the fact some have so freely moved vulnerable customers onto prepayment meters, without a proper plan to take remedial action where there has been a breach of the rules.
“So, I have only received half the picture as it still doesn't include enough action to offer redress to those who have been so appallingly treated.
“This is simply not good enough and absolutely needs to be addressed by Ofgem's review – I want to see plans from suppliers actually acted upon – and customers given the service they have a right to expect.”
The news comes after the practice was pushed into the headlines last week with an investigation by The Times newspaper which revealed some of the methods used by a British Gas subcontractor.
Regulator Ofgem has since launched an investigation, and ministers have demanded better practices from energy suppliers.
In an interview on LBC which is set to be broadcast on Friday evening, Akshay Kaul, a director at Ofgem, said: “I think if prepayment meters have been incorrectly installed, that is not in compliance with the rules, and that is what the investigation ultimately concludes, then yes, then consumers have a right for them to be uninstalled, if that is what they wish.
“They have a right to seek compensation, and that is what we will be asking any suppliers that are in that situation to do.”
Adam Scorer, chief executive of fuel poverty charity National Energy Action, said: “The Secretary of State is right to push for urgent action to protect vulnerable consumers.
“An immediate halt to forced installation of prepayment meters must be followed quickly with clarity on how many vulnerable households shouldn't have had these meters installed, a suitable compensation package imposed by Ofgem, and then a full review of the prepayment market to see whether or not it can work for consumers and not just for suppliers.
“There are over four million households in England and Wales on a prepayment meter.
“They've had the rough end of the energy market for far too long and many have struggled most to redeem UK Government support during the energy crisis.”
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt separately said that there would be no “major new initiative” to help households with their energy bills from the start of April.
The current support package is set to become considerably less generous in two months, with the average annual household energy bill rising by about £900.
The Chancellor told broadcasters at a London science facility: “We constantly keep the help we can give families under review.
“But if you're saying, ‘do I think we're going to have the headroom to make a major new initiative to help people?', I don't think the situation would have changed very significantly from the autumn statement, which was just three months ago.”
Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ed Davey said that the Government “either doesn't care or doesn't understand the struggles of millions of families and pensioners”.
“Anything less than real action from the Conservatives will be heartlessly condemning millions of people to more energy misery.”