One of the things that frustrates me the most is when a business goes rogue and ignores the rules, regulations and laws that they are supposed to follow.

I’ve been contacted by lots of readers recently who have told me that they’ve followed my guidance on energy debt, financial difficulties and excessive bills, only for their energy supplier to insist they pay the full outstanding debt or be forced on to a prepayment meter.

This is outrageous – and it’s also a clear breach of the rules. But don’t worry, there are ways to fight back. Here’s my guide.

What’s the problem with prepayment meters?

There are around four million prepayment meters in the UK. With a prepayment meter, you pay for gas and/or electricity in advance, usually through a USB style ‘key’ or a card that you top up at a local shop.

The obvious problem with these meters is when you run out of cash and emergency credit, the power goes off. This allows energy suppliers to avoid direct responsibility for leaving people without power at the height of winter. According to Citizens Advice, 800,000 went without gas or electricity for longer than 24 hours last year and 1.7 million people were disconnected at least once a month. Worryingly, five million households are currently in debt to their supplier.

What if an energy supplier says it’s going to force you to have a prepayment meter?

Ofgem, the energy regulator, has introduced a much tougher code of practice that energy firms must follow through before forcibly switching someone on to a prepayment meter. The rules sound rather formal, but knowing what they are means you can challenge the energy firm if they aren’t following them.

The business must:

  • Make at least 10 attempts to contact you before a prepayment meter is installed.
  • Carry out a site welfare visit before a prepayment is installed. This means visit your home and assess your circumstances and if you or someone in your family falls in to a ‘vulnerable’ category.

That’s because lots of people can’t be forced to have a prepayment meter, including:  

  • Households which require a continuous energy supply for health reasons, especially medical equipment.
  • People over 85 years of age (if there is no other support).
  • Households with residents with severe health issues including people whose conditions mean they have to have a warm home.
  • Households where people can’t top up the meter due to physical or mental incapacity

Knowing your rights is key when speaking to energy firms. So check out Ofgem’s Energy Aware campaign page, with all the advice, support and help you need.

What to do next

Contact the energy supplier and tell them that you are making a formal complaint and you want a written response, as required by Ofgem. Tell the business that you want written confirmation that they will suspend all debt collection, legal action or meter installations while the matter is looked in to. This includes taking your case to the Energy Ombudsman.

Next up, provide an overview of your finances, circumstances and if you or your family is vulnerable, have medical conditions or you have young children. Explain that you’ve asked for help but it’s not been provided and ask the business for their proposals.

The Energy Ombudsman and StepChange

If the energy supplier still can’t sort things out, the Energy Ombudsman is a free service created to help you sort out complaints about your gas or electricity provider. You can contact them here.

If your financial difficulties look like they might be longer term, then speak to a free service like StepChange, the charity set up to help people get back on top of their finances. They’ll contact your creditors for you and negotiate payments you can afford. It’s not easy, but you’ll get the breathing space you need to rebuild your life and I couldn’t praise them more highly.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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