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This is the third in a new series of articles that provide much-needed information and guidance about cost of living support and consumer rights. The first covered energy bill support and discounts, the second covered welfare benefits to help pay energy costs. The next in the series will cover non-payment of energy bills.
Mounting energy prices have left many people feeling anxious about how to pay their bills.
With the recent huge energy price cap hike and a cold winter ahead, we want consumers to be aware of their rights surrounding disconnection and prepayment meters.
If you’re struggling to keep up with your energy bills, you may worry that your supplier may cut your gas or electricity supply. In principle a person who falls into energy debt can be disconnected, but regulatory requirements imposed by Ofgem make this extremely rare, especially where a household is at a particular risk of harm by reason of age or disability.
Many companies have signed a voluntary agreement promising to never knowingly disconnect, at any time of year, those households with children under the age of six (or under 16 during winter months), or where age, health, disability or severe financial insecurity means the customer is unable to safeguard their own or other members of the household’s personal welfare. Check if your supplier is signed up here.
Often a person in energy debt will experience their supplier seeking to install a prepayment meter. There are potential disadvantages to having a prepayment meter. For example, a customer could still suffer effective disconnection, as if they do not put money on the meter, the supply stops. Roughly 140,000 households with pre-payment meters (16 percent of households) self-disconnected from gas and/or electricity in 2017 because they could not afford to add credit to their meter.
The meters could also potentially disadvantage users because the unit and standing charges are higher on prepayment meters, and they can also prevent customers from signing up to cheaper tariffs.
There are various steps to reduce the proportion of payments allocated to debt, to increase the amount of energy payments made on the meter secure, and to obtain emergency credit and continuous supply if no funds are available to put on the meter. See Citizens Advice website here.
There are regulatory rules that energy customers can rely on to resist installation of a prepayment meter, or to ask for one to be removed.
Suppliers are prevented from obtaining a court warrant to enter a property to install a meter where it would be severely traumatic to a customer due to an existing vulnerability relating to their mental capacity or psychological state, which would be made significantly worse by the experience.
Suppliers are also prevented from imposing a prepayment meter where it is not ‘safe and reasonably practicable’. What does ‘safe and reasonably practicable’ mean? It includes the need for suppliers to consider if the customer can understand a prepayment meter, has the ability to top it up (e.g. distance to top up shops), needs a continuous supply for health reasons, and is able to physically get to the meter. See the guidance suppliers should be following here.
Those that cannot afford to pay and who face serious risk to their health or welfare if they do not receive the energy they require, should be able to avoid interruption to their supply by relying on the above. This may result in the build up of arrears, but this alone does not cause the same risks.
Failure by an energy supplier to comply with these obligations may amount to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, (which protects people with protected characteristics, including age, sex, disability, pregnancy and maternity). Especially where the energy company has enough information to know that the customer qualifies for special treatment, and they then do not provide it. In these circumstances, you may be able to take them to court.
You can also use your supplier’s complaints procedure, and if they do not resolve the matter you can take it to the Energy Ombudsman. The process to follow and support can be found here. To find out which route would be most appropriate to challenge your specific circumstances contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau (England), Advice Direct (Scotland) or your local law centre.
To stay up-to-date with the Empowered series and hear more about the ways Good Law Project is responding to the cost of living crisis, sign up here.
This article is based on guidance commissioned by Good Law Project from Adam Straw QC, of Doughty Street Chambers, and Tom Royston, of Garden Court North.
The information, content and material above is intended as a general guide, is subject to change and does not constitute any form of legal advice. It should not be relied on or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to your particular circumstances. Moreover, not all of the above support may be available across the entire UK.