An energy company is still trying to force-fit prepayment meters in the homes of vulnerable customers including mothers with young children, it was claimed today.
ScottishPower was last month granted warrants to enter homes to forcibly install the meters after they were temporarily banned following a scandal around the practice.
The firm insisted it would not fit a meter if debt agents found evidence of a risk of high vulnerability upon entering a house – including families with children under two.
Evidence was given on October 19 in a court hearing in Reading relating to 20 cases by a debt agent for the company who said there were no known vulnerabilities.
But The Times has now discovered that the account holders in at least two of the cases were mothers of children aged under two – and one gave birth in September.
ScottishPower has insisted it did not know of these customers’ circumstances and would not have forcibly fitted a meter had this become clear upon an agent’s arrival.
Energy company ScottishPower has its headquarters in this building in Glasgow (file picture)
People in Britain with prepayment meters who cannot afford to top up are cut off from the supply, which doctors say is very dangerous for those with young children.
Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho has met ScottishPower chief executive Keith Anderson to ask why the mothers were pursued, reported the newspaper.
ScottishPower reports strong earnings
ScottishPower said last week that its earnings ballooned in the first nine months of this year as Ofgem allowed energy companies to claw back some of the losses they had made during the energy crisis.
On October 26, the business said that its consumer-focused division had seen earnings before interest and tax of £574million during the period, up by £653million compared with the year before.
It came after Ofgem included a clause in the price cap which allowed energy companies to recoup some of the money they lost. Most of this benefit had already been reported by ScottishPower earlier this year in its first-half results.
The business said that it served 4.6 million customers at the end of September, unchanged from March. It also said that consumers used 4 per cent less electricity and 15 per cent less gas in the period.
She later wrote to Mr Anderson to insist that all force-fitting is stopped ‘until you have absolute confidence that vulnerable customers will not be negatively affected’.
Ofgem asked ScottishPower for an explanation, and the firm insisted no prepayment meters would be forcibly installed until it met the regulator’s restart conditions.
Glasgow-based ScottishPower cancelled the warrants after being contacted by The Times and said it had not been aware of the customers’ circumstances.
Peter Smith, director of policy and advocacy at National Energy Action, told MailOnline today: ‘Given the potential detriment to individuals and the huge level of public anxiety about this area, it’s vital suppliers are adhering to the new rules.
‘Local magistrates must also protect the most vulnerable people. It’s not sufficient to nod through applications in the courts without checking what level of harm could be created by these types of actions.’
And Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, told MailOnline: ‘The revelations in the Times should shame the energy industry, regulators and the Government.
‘At every point in the long running campaign against forced PPMs, we have been fobbed off with reassurances about best practice, voluntary codes and people trying to wash their hands of responsibility.
‘The reality is that forcing vulnerable people through a court process is problematic enough, but it resulting in a court-sanctioned warrant for an energy firm to break into a home is barbaric. This must stop here.
‘The Secretary of State should do what the Government should have done months ago and ban this practice outright through legislation in Parliament. Ministers had the opportunity to do this in the Energy Act, but MPs failed to even vote on the measures.
‘In the meantime, there can be absolutely no way that Ofgem can approve any supplier for a restart of forced prepayment meters for the foreseeable future. The current voluntary ban must remain in place this winter and Scottish Power must be put under close supervision by the regulators.’
Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho (pictured at Downing Street on October 24) has met ScottishPower chief executive Keith Anderson to ask why the mothers were pursued
Ofgem said that when a firm is allowed to restart such actions, it must follow the regulator’s code of conduct and action will be taken over breaches. Ofgem said no one has tried to install a prepayment meter in breach of the conditions.
An Ofgem spokesman told MailOnline today: ‘Ofgem’s position is unequivocal – no energy supplier can resume involuntary prepayment meter installations until they have met the conditions put in place to protect the most vulnerable.
‘As yet, no supplier has met those conditions. Obtaining a court order is only one part of the process and there are other safeguarding steps that suppliers must follow before any involuntary installation could take place.
‘Alongside this, we have put in place new rules which expand the protected ‘do not install’ category of customers to include households with a child under two years and anyone over 75 with no support in their home.
‘Our terms could not be clearer, and we will not hesitate to take action against any supplier who breaches these conditions.’
Dan While, campaigns officer at Disability Rights UK, has previously described the force-fitting of prepayment meters as a ‘brutal and immoral practice’.
But a Scottish Power spokeswoman told MailOnline: ‘We’re committed to adhering to the strict new licence conditions Ofgem has put in place and working with the regulator to ensure vulnerable customers are protected.
‘As we made clear in court, the warrants granted are for customers who have repeatedly refused to engage with us to discuss their outstanding debt and agree an affordable repayment plan. As a result, we were not aware of their individual circumstances at the point of warrant application, despite numerous attempts to contact them.
‘No prepayment meter installation would ever go ahead if any high-risk factors were identified at the visit, in line with Ofgem’s code of practice and licence conditions, and no warrant action can currently be progressed until Ofgem agrees.
‘This highlights the difficulties suppliers face when customers won’t engage with them when they run into difficulty. If anyone is struggling to pay, they should contact us or speak to a debt charity right away so we can take their situation into account and get them the help they need.
‘Given we now have additional information about both customers, we’ve added them to the Priority Services Register, cancelled the warrants and will work with them to agree an affordable repayment plan.’
Ms Coutinho told ScottishPower boss Keith Anderson (above) that force-fitting must be halted ‘until you have absolute confidence that vulnerable customers will not be negatively affected’
On October 19, a judge granted Scottish Power warrants to enter homes to forcibly fit prepayment meters after they were temporarily banned.
District Judge Samuel Goozee heard details of 20 applications from 124 made by debt collection agency Richburns on behalf of the energy firm at Berkshire Magistrates Court, sitting in Reading, to establish if they had met the requirements set out in Ofgem’s updated code of practice.
The warrants cannot be used by Scottish Power until Ofgem has granted its own approval.
Currently, no suppliers are carrying out involuntary installations and face severe penalties if they do unless they meet strict criteria set by Ofgem.
A voluntary code of practice governing the installation of prepayment meters, which all energy companies signed up to in April, was put in place after an investigation by The Times revealed evidence emerged of bad behaviour by suppliers severely affecting struggling customers.
The courts also came in for criticism after it emerged that batches of applications to forcibly install the meters had been approved.
Among the cases heard by the court on October 19 were several involving multiple attempts by Scottish Power to contact the holders of accounts with outstanding amounts of thousands of pounds.
In one case, the court heard that Richburns had made 17 attempts to contact the residents of one property in Grimsby with an outstanding balance of £2,179.24 for electricity and £2,769.87 for gas on an account that was opened in July 2021 and for which no payments had been made.
Richburns said over 92 days it had sent four letters, seven emails and five SMS messages and made one personal visit to the property but had not been able to make contact with either the residents – even though the property appeared occupied – or the neighbours on either side.
Ofgem, whose boss Jonathan Brearley is pictured, asked ScottishPower for an explanation
Judge Goozee granted all of the applications.
Scottish Power said it would not fit a meter if they discovered evidence of a risk of high vulnerability once they had entered a house.
In each case, £30 would be credited to the prepayment meter when it was fitted.
In September, the regulator confirmed that the code of practice for the involuntary installation of prepayment meters would be made mandatory while also extending protection against forced installations for the most vulnerable households.
It also announced a ban on energy suppliers forcibly installing prepayment meters for people over 75 years old with no support in their house and in homes with children under the age of two.
Initially, the no-install rule applied to customers aged 85 and over with no other support in their home, or households with residents with severe health issues including terminal illnesses or those with a medical dependency on a warm home.
Ofgem said dropping the upper age limit to 75 and adding homes with very young children would ensure more people are protected this winter.
Under the new rules, which come into effect on Wednesday next week, suppliers must ensure they are acting in a fair and responsible way with involuntary installations used only as a last resort.
Following a public consultation over the summer, the code will become part of suppliers’ licence conditions, and breaking the rules could result in enforcement action and ‘substantial’ fines.
Source: | This article originally belongs to Dailymail.co.uk