Conor D’Arcy, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
Ofgem and government must take the strongest possible action to stop aggressive energy firms
3 February 2023
Feeling safe and secure in our homes is something we should be able to take for granted. That’s why the stories in recent days about energy companies forcing their way into people’s homes to fit prepayment meters have been so disturbing and outraging. The news that Ofgem, the energy regulator, has asked firms to pause this practice and review their approach is welcome. But this nasty episode has shone a light on how those struggling to keep up with bills – including those of us with mental health problems – are being let down. Much stronger action is needed from Ofgem and the government. Our work makes clear just how high the stakes can be.
The current rules
As things stand, energy firms should not be moving at-risk customers onto a prepayment meter. “At-risk” covers a wide number of circumstances, including people who would be unable to afford to top up a prepayment meter as well as people whose mental health would make it hard for them to get to, read or use the meter.
“Acute agoraphobia means I’m completely house bound and therefore unable to get any work. This also means I have to pay carers to do shopping, get gas and electric on keys, and any other tasks that involve going out.” Expert by experience
Despite this, we have still heard stories over the years from our Research Community – a group of nearly 5,000 people with personal experience of mental health problems – who have been put through this traumatic process.
“I’ve had bailiffs coming to the door, I’ve had locksmiths taking my locks off to get in to change my gas and electricity meters. It’s just constant worry and stress making me feel even lower.” Expert by experience
Even for those customers not in those at-risk categories, force-fitting prepayment meters should be the absolute last resort. This should come only after the energy company has explored all other avenues with the customer. But members of our Research Community told us how the interactions they have with energy companies were not constructive or supportive.
“[My energy provider] are constantly sending emails and have passed it through to a debt collection agency already who are also sending very scary letters.Their staff on the phones are also very rude and don’t listen to what I have to say before trying to impose their solution rather than working with me to resolve the issue.” Expert by experience
The damage done
Having a stranger break into your home would be distressing for anyone. But for those of us with mental health problems, it can be particularly damaging.
“The thought of bailiffs banging on my door makes me feel sick and quite frankly awakens my self harm urge.” Expert by experience
These forced entries are a major concern at any time. But when they come during a cost of living crisis, it’s all the more irresponsible. Polling we commissioned in November last year found that a frightening one in six of us have had suicidal thoughts or feelings as a result of the cost of living since prices began to soar. That proportion jumped to half of those with multiple debts, as many of those who are facing the forced installation of meters will likely have.
Managing the sector
What needs to happen? First and foremost, the responsibility lies with firms. The announcement from several of the largest suppliers that they will suspend forced installations is a step forward.
But with clear rules already in place regarding the treatment of customers in vulnerable situations, the need for proper enforcement is obvious. Ofgem’s chief executive Jonathan Brearley has said “we will not hesitate to take the strongest action needed”. That now has to come through in the shape of large fines and penalties if firms have been found to be breaching the rules.
Brearley has also acknowledged, however, that Ofgem doesn’t have the power to completely ban forced installations. That’s why there’s an important role here for the government to ensure the right legislative framework is in place to protect customers.
Forced entry into people’s homes is at the extreme end of what customers in difficulty can face. But only yesterday, Ofgem published its latest review of customer service and how complaints are managed by energy companies, finding severe weaknesses in E.ON’s approach and moderate weaknesses at 11 other suppliers. A serious evaluation of the effectiveness of regulation of this essential sector is urgently required, with the government needing to commit to raising standards. If it doesn’t, the current push from the regulator will only be a sticking plaster on one element of bad behaviour in energy. A more lasting fix is needed.
Since we published this blog, there has been a pause on forced installations of pre-payment meters and the regulator Ofgem has launched a call for evidence on the issue.