Find out about your rights on refusing a prepayment meter and the rules suppliers must follow for installation without your consent.
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In these tough times, with the cost of living crisis biting hard, many of us are finding it difficult to keep up with our bills, especially energy bills.
A worry for many is being switched to a prepayment meter by their energy supplier.
But can they really do that without your say-so?
Let’s get the facts straight.
What’s a prepayment meter?
A prepayment meter, also known as a pay-as-you-go meter, is a type of energy meter where you pay for your gas or electricity before you use it, usually by topping up a key or card at a shop.
It can help you manage your energy use and spending, but if you run out of credit, your energy can be cut off until you top up again.
You will still need to pay standing charges, and the unit rates of energy you use are generally much higher than standard meters.
When they can’t force you to have a prepayment meter
The energy supplier won’t be able to force you to switch to a prepayment meter or switch your smart meter to pay-as-you-go in a few circumstances:
- you owe less than £200 for gas and less than £200 for electricity.
- your last bill was sent out less than three months before.
- there’s a disagreement about the billing amount.
Can you be forced to switch?
The answer is, it’s complicated.
Your energy supplier can ask to install a prepayment meter if you owe them money and do so without your permission.
But, they must follow the rules set out by Ofgem and consider your situation.
They should offer you a payment plan you can afford and only switch you to a prepayment meter as a last resort.
The process of switching to prepayment
- Owing money: If you owe money to your energy supplier, they might suggest a prepayment meter as a way to pay off the debt. Stay in communication with them.
You can ask for:
- a full review of your debt repayments
- a “breathing space” break of up to 60 days or a reduction in how much you pay
- more time to pay
- help with access to hardship funds
- Legal process and court warrant: Suppliers usually need a court warrant to install a prepayment meter if you don’t agree to it. This involves legal considerations, and suppliers must prove they have taken appropriate steps to resolve the debt issue.
They must have made at least 10 contact attempts, have carried out a welfare visit before any installation, and have looked at a way to repay any money you owe.
If a warrant is served, it can cost up to £150 and can be added to any existing debt on your energy bill.
- Considering circumstances: Before getting a warrant, suppliers must consider your personal situation.
If you have a long-term or severe illness, disability, or young children, they should look for other ways to help you pay. And they have to show they have attempted to resolve the issue with you.
If you have a smart meter, they can switch it to repayment remotely – but only after they’ve tried to agree payments with you.
Your rights and protections
- Right to refuse: You can refuse the switch to a prepayment meter, especially if it’s not safe or practical for you.
This could be for:
- Inaccessibility: If you physically can’t access or operate a prepayment meter due to disability or age, you can refuse the switch.
- Practical difficulties: If you live far from a shop where you can top up, or if there are other practical reasons why a prepayment meter isn’t suitable, you can refuse.
- Health concerns: If you have a medical condition that requires a constant supply of energy, or if a disruption in energy supply would pose a health risk, you can refuse the installation.
- Vulnerability: If there are young children, elderly, or vulnerable individuals in your household, this may be a valid reason to refuse a prepayment meter.
- Vulnerable customer protection: If you’re in a vulnerable situation, your supplier has to offer you extra protection.
This could mean they can’t force a prepayment meter on you. Make sure you are registered for free with the Priority Services Register.
- Payment plans: Suppliers should work with you to agree on a payment plan you can afford before considering a prepayment meter.
- Switch to a new supplier: If you have energy debt on a standard meter, you can switch to a different energy supplier if you’ve not had the debt for more than 28 days.
What happens if you disagree?
- Communication with the supplier: Always talk first with your supplier. Explain your situation and see if there’s a better solution.
- Getting advice: If you’re not happy with your supplier’s decision or feel they’re not considering your circumstances, get advice. Citizens Advice and other organisations can support you.
- Formal complaints: You have the right to make a formal complaint to your energy supplier. They are bound by the regulations of Oftem, the energy regulator.
If you’re still not satisfied or feel that you’ve not been treated fairly, you can take your complaint to the energy ombudsman.
Why it matters
For many, switching to a prepayment meter can mean more expensive tariffs and the stress of managing top-ups.
Suppliers are supposed to help, not make things harder for you, yet there were reports last year of suppliers forcibly making people have prepayment meters. A hold was put on energy companies doing this, but it has restarted for EDF, Octopus and Scottish Power from January 2024.
While you can be switched to a prepayment meter if you owe money, there are steps suppliers must follow. You have rights and protections, especially if you’re in a vulnerable situation.
Don’t hesitate to speak up and seek advice if you’re facing this issue.
Poverty and energy
It all goes much deeper than simply saving money on energy bills. According to Citizens Advice, 5.3 million people in the UK are in debt to their energy suppliers. And the likelihood is that millions of people will be cut off from their gas and electricity this winter.
Sadly, 800,000 people went without gas or electricity for more than a day in 2023 because they couldn’t afford to top up.
In October 2023, nearly half of the poorest households were behind on bills, according to the UK Poverty 2024 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
And it’s not just bills.
People are going without essentials; 72% of households miss out on things they need, and 58% struggle to afford food.
In 2021/22, a shocking 6 million people were in “very deep” poverty, with their income way below the poverty line.
Over the last few years, over 12 million have experienced this severe level of poverty.