Disabled campaigners have welcomed a judge’s order that should put a temporary stop to energy companies using the courts to force customers onto prepayment meters, but they have called on the government to go further and introduce a permanent ban.
Lord Justice Edis, the senior presiding judge of England and Wales, told magistrates courts this week to stop listing applications from energy companies for signed warrants that allow their contractors to force entry into customers’ homes to install prepayment meters.
Any energy companies that want to “press their application” for such permission will now have to “satisfy the court in detail” about the “integrity of their procedures, in particular relating to the vulnerability of occupiers”.
Lord Justice Edis said that any decision to allow the listing of applications to restart will depend on the progress of an investigation by the energy regulator Ofgem and the actions of the government.
The Courts and Tribunals Service will now be consulting energy companies “urgently” about the way forward.
The Disability Poverty Campaign Group (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”.
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.
Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice for Inclusion London, a leading DPCG member, said the order by Lord Justice Edis was “a step in the right direction, and it will help some people.
“But we are appalled at what those on pre-payment meters have to go through.
“We have been calling on the government and Ofgem to take robust action to address this problem, but there are already one million disabled people on prepayment meters, and they need help too.
“Relying on judicial moratoriums or the goodwill of energy providers is not good enough.”
She said the government must bring in new laws to “permanently ban forcing people onto pre-payment schemes”.
And she said there must be a halt to energy companies collecting debts through prepayment meters “as this most affects those disabled people who cannot afford to keep up with the cost of ongoing energy needs, let alone pay arrears.
“There must also be support for people who struggle to pay for energy, especially disabled people, as their energy costs can be much higher, and loss of electricity or gas could become an issue of life and death.”
Meanwhile, Ofgem has launched “a major market-wide review investigating the rapid growth in prepayment meter installations”, following “extremely serious allegations” in The Times newspaper about forced installations by British Gas.
Business and energy secretary* Grant Shapps told Ofgem on Sunday that he was concerned that the regulator was “too easily having the wool pulled over their eyes by taking at face value what energy companies are telling them”.
He said: “I am appalled that vulnerable customers struggling with their energy bills have had their homes invaded and prepayment meters installed when there is a clear duty on suppliers to provide them with support.
“They need to refocus their efforts on their consumers, the British public, who are at the receiving end of this abhorrent behaviour.
“I’m also concerned the regulator is too easily having the wool pulled over their eyes by taking at face value what energy companies are telling them.
“They need to also listen to customers to make sure this treatment of vulnerable consumers doesn’t happen again.”
An Ofgem spokesperson said: “We share the secretary of state’s shock at the behaviour that The Times investigation has uncovered at British Gas and, as a result, we have launched an immediate investigation and have issued a legal order for British Gas to cease all warrant activities until they can demonstrate compliance with our standards and requirements.
“Our reviews have already exposed that there needs to be significant improvement in standards across the sector and I will be discussing with [chief executives] of retailers and consumer groups how we can drive the improvements that customers need and expect at pace.”
*Following a cabinet reshuffle this week, Shapps is now secretary of state for energy security and net zero
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