Disabled campaigners have given a guarded welcome to new rules that should stop energy companies forcibly installing prepayment meters in the homes of many disabled people.
Ofgem said all energy suppliers had agreed a new code of practice which aims to strengthen protection for customers who may be put at risk if a prepayment meter (PPM) is installed without their agreement.
The regulator said the code of practice should mean that PPMs will only be installed “where safe and reasonably practicable” and as a last resort, and that it will strengthen protection for customers in vulnerable situations.
Among the measures in the code of practice are that energy companies must usually make at least 10 attempts to contact a customer, and must carry out a welfare visit to a home, before installing a PPM.
It also bans forced PPMs for households where: someone needs a continuous supply of energy for health reasons; there are customers over 85 without support in the household; there are residents with “severe health issues”, including those with a medical need for a warm home; and where no-one can top up the meter for impairment-related reasons.
Energy companies have also been told to carry out assessments on a case-by-case basis of households that include other groups of older or disabled people, including those with mobility impairments, learning difficulties and dementia, before carrying out a forced PPM installation.
Forced installation of PPMs is currently suspended, and before it can be restarted, energy companies will have to meet certain conditions, including carrying out an independent audit to identify “wrongfully installed involuntary PPMs” and offering compensation and a return to a non-PPM method of payment to any customers affected.
There will now be a consultation on whether to translate the code of practice into energy companies’ licences, which would make it legally enforceable.
Ofgem’s new code of practice has received a mixed response from disabled campaigners.
Inclusion London, a member of the Disability Poverty Campaign Group (DPCG), called the code of practice a “positive step”, but said there still needed to be a new law banning forced installation of PPMs in all households that include disabled people, because energy was “essential” and not an “optional extra”.
The disabled women’s organisation WinVisible, a DPCG member, said Ofgem should be doing more to force energy companies to safeguard “mothers with newborns, families with young children, sick and disabled people, pensioners and other low-income people” against forced PPMs.
Dan White, policy and campaigns officer at Disability Rights UK and a DPCG lead, said: “While we welcome the protections given to disabled people in Ofgem’s voluntary code and hope to see such protections extended and strengthened in new supplier licence agreements in the autumn, there is still much more that could and should be done.
“We do have some major concerns including the failure to consult with disabled people’s organisations in developing this code, the potential intrusive nature of health checks and the exclusion of disabled people using mobility equipment such as wheelchairs, lifts, and hoists.
“We would want Ofgem to extend and strengthen the provisions before they become incorporated into supplier licence agreements in the autumn.”
Jonathan Brearley, Ofgem’s chief executive, said: “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.”
The new code of practice follows media reports – initially in the i newspaper and then The Times – about the forced installation of PPMs.
A four-month investigation by the i found that courts were processing hundreds of warrants in just minutes, allowing debt agencies working for energy suppliers to forcibly fit the meters, despite concerns over insufficient checks on the “vulnerability” of disabled and other customers.
Lord Justice Edis, the senior presiding judge of England and Wales, later told magistrates’ courts to stop listing applications from energy companies for the warrants.
And Ofgem launched a review of the rapid growth in prepayment meter installations following the “extremely serious allegations” in The Times about forced installations by British Gas.
Ofgem imposed a suspension of forced PPM installations until energy companies were able to prove they were treating disabled people and other customers fairly.
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