The energy regulator has struggled to explain how it can prevent disabled people being forced onto prepayment meters when it claims to have no powers to ensure power companies comply with the Equality Act.
Ofgem said last week that it was launching an “urgent investigation” into claims that British Gas was imposing “forced installations on vulnerable customers struggling to pay their bills” without exhausting other options and carrying out thorough safety checks.
The investigation follows “extremely serious allegations” in The Times about forced installations by British Gas.
Many disabled and older customers have been cut off from heat and power when they are unable to top up their prepayment meters.
This week, Lord Justice Edis, the senior presiding judge of England and Wales, told magistrates courts to stop listing applications from energy companies for signed warrants that allow their contractors to force entry into customers’ homes to install prepayment meters (see separate story).
Business and energy secretary* Grant Shapps told Ofgem on Sunday that he was concerned that it was “too easily having the wool pulled over their eyes by taking at face value what energy companies are telling them”.
But only last month, Ofgem told one disabled campaigner that it had no powers to act on complaints of disability discrimination made against energy companies.
It claimed that its powers only extended to legislation such as the Electricity Act, the Competition Act, and various Energy Acts.
The regulator told Ian Jones – one of the founders of the WOW petition – in a letter: “While Ofgem ensures that we, as an Organisation, act within the Equality Act, we do not have explicit legal powers to ensure that energy supply licensees do so.”
Ofgem said that all companies must comply with the Equality Act, but that it was “not within Ofgem’s regulatory powers to hold them accountable.
“The Equality and Human Rights Commission is the appropriate regulator for Equality Act issues.”
Jones told Ofgem: “I think it is fair to say that… the companies you regulate have decided that all you care about is keeping customers on supply and that they don’t have to worry about complying with the [Equality Act].
“I have copied my MP into this correspondence in the hope she will take an interest in what appears to be an institutionally disablist regulator.”
He originally complained to Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) last September about its failure to make reasonable adjustments for him after he told the company that the noise caused by a portable generator set up near his Berkshire home had been causing him considerable distress for several days.
He then complained to Ofgem when he was unhappy with SSEN’s response.
Ofgem has repeatedly refused this week to provide on-the-record answers to questions from Disability News Service about its letter to Jones, including whether it would ignore all discrimination-related aspects of its investigation into forced installation of prepayment meters.
It did provide background information that suggested it accepted that it could not enforce the Equality Act, but that the investigation would consider the issue of “vulnerability”, including “disability”, in relation to compliance with the rules.
An SSEN spokesperson claimed the company was “committed to supporting vulnerable customers and working to assist them to meet their needs”.
She said: “Mr Jones raised concerns over a temporary generator installed near to his property and SSEN offered suitable resolutions and/or aids to alleviate the situation, however Mr Jones declined to accept the proposals.
“Mr Jones is advised to seek independent legal advice and/or refer his complaint to the Energy Ombudsman.”
But correspondence seen by DNS shows that SSEN eventually put in place soundproofing measures on the generator, six days after his first complaint.
Seven days after his complaint, SSEN also offered free hotel accommodation, which Jones and his wife turned down, and the following day the generator was finally removed.
SSEN later offered a “goodwill gesture” of £125 for the “inconvenience caused” and the time taken to deal with his complaint.
He has now taken his complaint to the ombudsman.
*Following a cabinet reshuffle this week, Shapps is now secretary of state for energy security and net zero
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