Labor has called for an immediate halt to the “shameful” forced installation of prepay gas and electricity meters, with the shadow climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, accusing the government of a “dereliction of duty” and demanding extra financial support for struggling households.
The opposition wants a three-month moratorium on the installations – which are typically made when customers rack up debts with their energy supplier – and it has asked for an “urgent review of how energy vulnerability can be reduced”.
Labor MPs joined charities and consumer groups in demanding a freeze on the use of court warrants to gain entry to homes to fit prepay meters, after the Guardian reported estimates from Citizens Advice that 600,000 people were switched from credit meters to prepay in 2022, compared with 380,000 in 2021. The charity said 3.2 million people on prepay meters were left with cold and dark homes last year as they ran out of credit.
In a letter to the business secretary, Grant Shapps, seen by the Guardian, Miliband said: “No family in Britain should have to go without the heat and power they need to get by. Even in a period of high energy prices, it should be the number one priority of the government and the energy regulator to do everything they can to ensure that people’s heat and power is not cut off.
“Serious concerns have been raised that that not enough is being done by energy companies to identify customers in vulnerable circumstances before installing a prepayment meter, and that this is leading to a rocketing in voluntary self-disconnections.
“Too often, forced installation of prepayment meters results in the disconnection of customers by the back door.”
It is much more complicated for prepay households to collect the £400 per household government help with energy bills this winter, as they have to use a voucher system rather than having the money discounted from their bill each month. Prepay is also more expensive, and suppliers are using it to claw back debts on previous energy bills, meaning a top-up might not lead to the lights coming back on.
Government data has shown over 1m vouchers designed to cut bills this winter have yet to be redeemed.
MPs have questioned the actions of magistratesafter it emerged that about 30,000 forced-entry warrants a month were being granted to energy suppliers, often signed off in huge batches in a matter of minutes, suggesting individual cases were not being scrutinized.
Labor also called for an end to the “unfair penalty” on prepayment meter customers, who pays more for each unit than credit meter customers. Energy suppliers argue that the cost difference is small and prepayment meter customers cost more to serve.
“Rishi Sunak must not blame others for what is his government’s dereliction of duty. He is standing by while families across the country are being cut off,” Miliband said.
The government said this week that it expects energy suppliers to “do all they can to help customers who are struggling to pay their bills” and suppliers can only install prepayment meters without consent to recover debt as “a last resort”. Ministers are understood to be examining the problems around prepayment meters with officials.