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It’s a January morning in Glasgow and I’m speaking in a virtual meeting with a collection of MPs and fuel poverty campaigners. It’s part of the new all-party parliamentary group for prepayment meter reform, chaired by the SNP’s Anne McLaughlin. In the next room my toddler is napping, so I speak more gently than I usually would. My screen has the background blurred because our kitchen is, frankly, a tip, and I don’t want our dirty dishes to distract from what I have to say.

On my laptop is a picture gallery of those attending, each of their faces drawn with real concern. The day before this meeting, the Times had published an undercover exposé on British Gas, whose third-party debt collection agency was revealed to be breaking into people’s homes, with warrants, to forcibly install prepayment energy meters – even when there were signs that vulnerable people lived there. The debt collectors, it was alleged, were incentivised with bonuses to do their ruthless work.

The news triggered a series of reactions – from the government, from the energy regulator Ofgem, and from the courts – which led last Friday to a pledge from energy companies to stop the forced installation of the meters in vulnerable people’s homes. The energy security secretary, Grant Shapps, said this was “only the beginning” of fixing the “abhorrent” practice, and has written to energy companies to insist they improve.

But here’s the missing detail: the rules already stated that the energy companies weren’t supposed to be doing this. “Some people will be able to sleep a little easier because of this news while others will struggle to sleep at all having had the sanctity of their homes violated by these enforced installations,” Anne McLaughlin told me. “The energy suppliers may be patting themselves on the back but here we have an announcement that simply says they’ll do what they were supposed to be doing in the first place because forcing your way into the homes of people who are vulnerable was never within the rules.”

As far as I’m concerned, this is a step in the right direction but we should be miles down this road – moving towards a complete ban on prepayment meters in their current incarnation.

Fuel poverty and the peril of prepayment meters is not a new subject for me, because I have lived through it. Nor is it new, of course, to fuel poverty campaigners, many of whom will have lately been going through the most challenging months of their lives. Likewise, many MPs will have spent much time sitting in front of desperate constituents who are choosing between heating or eating. But it does feel like British politics more broadly might finally be waking up to this injustice.

For anyone still unfamiliar with prepayment meters, they are effectively “pay as you go” machines installed at home for energy use. The customer typically pays a higher price per unit for energy, plus a daily standing charge. If you run out of credit, everything shuts off.

In that meeting, I spoke about what it means to grow up with such a punishing and unnecessary device in your home, arbitrarily installed by rubber stamp in a court, which will decide whether you’re able to cook your food or have a hot shower. About what it means to have your life inexorably linked to that ticking clock. It is a terrible way to live; a life of panic and degradation. These meters are not just practically punitive, they are mentally and emotionally gruelling, too.

Greenpeace activists project film about fuel poverty on to Rishi Sunak’s mansion – video

What’s more, these meters – which disconnect remotely, plunging people into the cold – can be a matter of life and death. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition revealed that more than 1,000 people died in England as a result of living in cold, damp homes in December 2022 alone. Citizens Advice revealed that 3.2 million people across Great Britain had been left without heat or light at some point last year.

Many of the people I speak to who currently have prepayment meters in place talk about how demeaning they find it to have to go to the local shop to top up their gas or electric – it is a very public humiliation. It’s also a very difficult sentence to get out of: even once their outstanding debt is paid, customers are often required to pay hundreds of pounds to have their prepayment meter replaced with a traditional one.

As of Friday, if the energy companies are to be trusted – and it’s a big if, given what we know so far – prepayment meters will no longer be forcibly installed in vulnerable people’s homes. But this is only one part of the picture: these meters are by their very nature punitive and unfair for all those on low-incomes who are forced to live with them. That’s why we should be demanding a total and permanent ban on prepayment meters unless mutually agreed with the customer, at the same tariff as those traditionally billed, and with no option for disconnection.

It’s hardly a big ask, as energy companies are making record profits; British Gas’s owner, Centrica, expects a near-eightfold increase in its earnings this year. These companies might believe their greatest responsibility is to their shareholders but they have a moral and legal duty of care to customers who depend upon them. Just as Ofgem has a responsibility to hold them truly accountable if they breach the rules.

The brutal irony of this is that people who have prepayment meters are the energy companies’ best customers. They pay the highest tariffs and the highest standing charges. As McLaughlin said recently during prime minister’s questions: most people on the lowest income with prepayment meters pay more for their energy per unit than our multimillionaire prime minister.

Add to this the fact that many people on low incomes are living in damp and poorly insulated housing and you realise how problems beget problems. Your home is damp, you cannot afford to heat it, you can’t dry your clothes properly, you have to spend money you don’t have on the launderette. As the saying goes: “It’s very expensive to be poor.”

Of course, we have all faced the anxiety and hardship of spiralling energy costs this winter. We can say as often as we want that the war in Ukraine caused these price rises but my belief is that, actually, the telephone call is coming from inside the house: there is a rise in business costs and then there is pure profiteering. Since I was a child four decades ago, prepayment meters have been known to be a poverty trap and a scam. How long will it be until we come to our senses and consign them to history?


https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/133a0037905eb3c29e7164c4a3fa81dd7ccbd885/0_5_4484_2690/master/4484.jpg?width=1200&height=630&quality=85&auto=format&fit=crop&overlay-align=bottom%2Cleft&overlay-width=100p&overlay-base64=L2ltZy9zdGF0aWMvb3ZlcmxheXMvdGctb3BpbmlvbnMucG5n&enable=upscale&s=2ecc2a972f31f511a3763f1873b384c4

#inhumanity #prepayment #meters #Forget #reform #abolished #Kerry #Hudson

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