Disabled people’s organisations and allies have written to the prime minister to call for an immediate ban on energy companies forcibly installing pre-payment meters in the homes of disabled customers who have fallen into debt.
The Disability Poverty Campaign Group (DPCG) says the consequences of the government failing to act immediately on the widespread practice would be “devastating” for disabled people.
DPCG believes there are now about one million homes where someone is disabled and paying for gas or electricity through a prepayment meter.
If they cannot afford to top up their prepayment meter, they are not able to access energy in their homes, a process known as “self-disconnecting”.
DPCG points out in this week’s letter to the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, that disabled people in the UK are far more likely to be living in poverty than non-disabled people, with a recent survey finding two-fifths of them say they could not afford to keep their homes warm, compared with one-fifth of the non-disabled population.
And it says there is mounting evidence of energy companies seeking warrants – which must be signed by magistrates – giving them permission to forcibly install prepayment meters in the homes of disabled customers who have fallen into debt.
DPCG told Sunak that such a process “must be terrifying” for their customers.
Debt collection agents working for gas and electricity supply companies have used more than 490,000 warrants to forcibly install prepayment meters since July 2021, the letter says.
Energy companies are also automatically switching smart meters to prepayment mode when a customer falls into debt on their bill.
Earlier this month, Citizens Advice said its research showed 3.2 million people across Britain ran out of credit on their prepayment meters in 2022 because they could not afford to top them up.
One disabled mother of a disabled daughter described how her supplier switched her smart meter to prepayment mode without warning after she struggled to cope with rising energy bills and got into debt.
She said: “One evening just before Christmas my power went off. I assumed it was a power cut.
“I had no way to make any calls, so my daughter and I were left in the dark all night with no heating, lights or means of making any food. I was really anxious.
“I went to my local Citizens Advice when the power didn’t come back on the next morning.
“They spoke to my supplier and found out they’d switched my smart meter to prepayment mode.
“I explained that I was on the priority services register.
“I also said I’m in a wheelchair and unable to access my meter, but none of it made a difference.
“I’m now reliant on my sister or her husband to go to the post office to help me top up my meter.
“Over Christmas I went without energy because the credit ran out, and the post office was closed, so my daughter and I sat there cold, in the dark. How can I live like this?”
The Disability Poverty Campaign Group told the prime minister this week in its letter that it accepts that business secretary Grant Shapps has now asked energy companies to stop forcing financially vulnerable households to switch to prepayment meters – which are also more expensive – but they say this stops short of an outright ban.
It also wants a ban on energy companies automatically switching smart meters to prepayment mode when a customer falls into debt on their bill.
And it wants the industry to stop collecting customers’ debts via their prepayment meters.
DPCG wants legislation to end forced prepayment meters by the beginning of next winter.
And it wants increased penalties for energy companies that breach their duties to disabled customers.
The letter also calls on the government to increase cost-of-living payments to disabled people, accusing ministers of being “out of touch with the reality” of disabled people’s lives.
It says in the letter: “We are writing to call your urgent attention to the deepening and devastating levels of poverty faced by disabled people in the UK and the fact that Government financial support, in the shape of cost-of-living payments and the energy price guarantee, are nowhere near enough to counter the now undisputed depths of disability poverty.”
It warns that disabled people are rationing how often they use medical equipment such as oxygen concentrators, and how frequently they charge their wheelchairs and mobility hoists.
Some are turning off the heating, even if they cannot regulate their own body temperature, which can cause health problems that lead to hospitalisation.
The energy regulator, Ofgem, has rules that mean disabled people and other groups should not be forced onto a prepayment meter.
After Citizens Advice raised concerns to the regulator and the government that it had seen evidence of suppliers forcing people in these groups onto prepayment meters, Ofgem warned suppliers that it must do more to identify customers in vulnerable circumstances before installing a prepayment meter.
But in the month following that intervention, more than a third of prepayment meter households that included a disabled person or someone with a long-term health condition – 470,000 households – were cut off from their supply at least once.
A government spokesperson told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday): “Last week, the business secretary wrote to energy suppliers calling on them to stop moving customers over to prepayment meters without taking every step to support those in difficulty.
“Switching users onto a prepayment plan should only ever be a very last resort and suppliers have a duty to exhaust all other avenues.”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said Shapps had asked suppliers to provide data showing how many warrants they have each requested to allow them to forcibly install prepayment meters, so ministers can name and shame the worst offenders.
Energy and climate minister Graham Stuart met energy suppliers, Ofgem, Energy UK – the trade association for the energy industry – and Citizens Advice yesterday at BEIS to ask suppliers why they were forcibly fitting so many homes with prepayment meters.
He was set to tell them they must instead offer struggling customers more help first, and to commit to end this practice for the remainder of this winter.
BEIS also insists that there are strong regulatory protections in place to support prepayment meter customers.
But BEIS had not said by noon today if it was ruling out an outright ban on forcing households which include disabled people to switch to prepayment meters, and the other calls made by DPCG.
DPCG is now asking supporters to write to their MPs, asking them to press the government to act on pre-payment meters.
Among the members of DPCG are Inclusion Barnet, Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living, Disability Rights UK, Chronic Illness Inclusion, Disability Positive, Inclusion Scotland, WinVisible, The Disability Union, Real, Merton Centre for Independent Living, Harrow Association of Disabled People, and Greenwich Disabled People Against Cuts.
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