Prepayment Meters: Forced Installation

Energy Security and Net Zero – in the House of Commons at on 28 February 2023.

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Photo of Dan Carden Dan Carden Labour, Liverpool, Walton

How many households had forced installations of prepayment meters in 2022.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

How many households in Newport West constituency had forced installations of prepayment meters in 2022.

Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

How many households had forced installations of prepayment meters in 2022.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero

I wrote to suppliers in January calling on them to halt the inappropriate use of prepayment meters and to provide transparency on the use of warrants in people’s homes. Along with a number of other steps, that has led to the cessation of that practice.

Photo of Dan Carden Dan Carden Labour, Liverpool, Walton

The Secretary of State will know that I wrote to all energy companies before the practice was suspended. The mixed bag of responses showed that a voluntary approach simply will not work. Utilita chief executive officer Bill Bullen said:

“We will not commit to ending the forcible use of prepay. That course of action is simply not sustainable.”

There is a suspension until 31 March, and compensation has been talked about. However, all that is about is Ofgem asking companies to look at whether the forced instalment was appropriate. Companies know that Ofgem is toothless. It is down to the Secretary of State to ban this practice and to set out how compensation will be given out.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s moves in this sphere. To be clear to the House, I wrote to the suppliers and received reassurances that they would end the practice. I asked Ofgem—I have to say that I thought the wool had been pulled over its eyes—to not just take energy companies’ word for it but go to the customers, which it is doing. I queried the fact that the courts were issuing mass warrants, which they have agreed to end. He talks about what happens next; he is right that Ofgem is looking at what further protections will be in place. Its work will conclude shortly with further announcements.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the Secretary of State for his initial response, but constituents in Newport West will be disappointed by it. This Government are ducking their responsibilities on the control of energy bills, and are relying on the regulator to do the right thing. How can it be right that the installation of prepayment meters will recommence at the end of March? Why should those with the least have to pay the most to heat their homes and keep the lights on?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero

I take issue with the idea that the Government are somehow ducking our responsibility. As I mentioned, we are paying around half of household energy bills this winter. We took action—I will not repeat what it was—that brought the prepayment meter scandal to a conclusion. That work, and what happens next, is being looked at very carefully. Ofgem will look at what happens if there is no fall-back solution when energy bills are not being paid. That is a complex issue, but more will be said about it soon.

Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The news that British Gas broke into the homes of vulnerable people to force-fit prepayment meters is shocking, but bears little surprise to anyone who has had to interact with that company. The Government seem to cower from taking on the big energy companies as they continue to rip off the British people. Will those on the Conservative Benches finally act to protect such households and force energy firms to pay out and compensate now rather than at the end of the Ofgem review?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero

I do not think I could have been any more vocal about this issue. Indeed, we brought that practice, which the hon. Lady rightly describes as abhorrent, to a close. We are also not soft on the energy providers, particularly given the 75% taxation, which is at a level designed to ensure that we have been able to support, in part, the 50% reduction in people’s household bills. As I said in answer to the previous two questions, we will return with more on this shortly.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

Many on the Conservative Benches will be wondering what on earth Ofgem has been doing. It is supposed to be a regulator and to look after consumer interests, but it blunders around. It blundered around with the price gap, and it blundered around with its market entry strategy, meaning that energy companies could essentially put all bill payers’ money on red in a casino. It has ended up with billions of pounds taxpayers’ money being put into bailouts. Please can we have something more than the efforts by the Government to look at new non-executive directors—surely it is time to ask why the chief executive remains in post—and can we have better oversight of this regulator and regulators in general? They are getting away with ripping off consumers and allowing companies to do exactly the same.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero

I think it is always right that we keep what our regulators do under very close watch. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has met the chief executive officer of Ofgem regularly, and I am meeting him shortly as well. We will continue to do that. I have called Ofgem out when I have been concerned and thought that it had had the wool pulled over its eyes by the energy companies, and I will continue to ensure that whatever happens will be appropriate for the future of this market. As my hon. Friend knows, we are undertaking a review of the way in which the energy markets operate at the moment.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Independent, North West Leicestershire

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the potential for the Government’s new five-point plan to tackle bad behaviour by energy suppliers?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero

There is no space for the sort of approach that we have seen from energy suppliers, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning this. We have to have a situation where they respect their customers. Where there has not been the case, I am afraid that suppliers need to ensure, as one or two Labour Members have mentioned, that they recompense their customers for the way they have behaved—outrageously, in many cases, including entering people’s homes without their permission.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

The Secretary of State says that he has brought the scandal of prepayment meters to an end, but it certainly is not at an end. Indeed, the Government were repeatedly warned about this scandal but were effectively paralysed while thousands of vulnerable householders were disconnected by the back door. Customers now face more uncertainty as the moratorium on forced installations ends in just four weeks’ time, with nothing in its place. Can the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no lifting of the ban until this rotten system has been reformed and that there will be a proper compensation scheme managed by the Government for every customer affected?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero

As I mentioned previously, there is a role for prepayment meters. For example, my son lives in a shared flat, and they find a prepayment meter a very good way to pay the energy bill. I do not think that an outright ban is the right way to go, but the hon. Gentleman and others have rightly pointed out the level of concern across the House, which I absolutely share, about prepayment meters being forced on customers. We will ensure that we do not go back to those bad old days that I was pleased to play an important part in stopping.