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Feb 9th, 2023

How 100,000 of us stood up to callous energy companies

by 38 Degrees team

What does it take to force multi-billion pound companies to change practices that harm their most vulnerable customers? Our fight to stop energy companies from forcibly installing prepayment meters showed how people power, combined with courageous journalism, can make CEOs, regulators and politicians finally sit up and take notice.

people forced onto prepayment meters
people took action
emails to energy company CEOs

“One morning I woke up early and could hear two men in my house. I thought: ‘Oh my, who is that?’ I was so scared. I thought someone had broken in to take something.

“I eventually went downstairs and there were two men in my living room. My front door was open and outside were four more and a locksmith van. They didn’t apologise or explain, really.

“Now even when the doors are locked, I don’t feel like I’m safe, I just think someone else is going to come into my house. It feels like it was invaded.”

Those are the words of 38 Degrees supporter ‘Sarah’, one of the 100,483 people who signed our petition demanding energy suppliers stop installing prepayment meters in homes without customers’ consent. She’s also one of the roughly 600,000 people who were forced onto a prepayment meter because they couldn’t afford their energy bills in 2022.

Sarah (not her real name) bravely shared her story with BBC News, appearing on Newsnight as part of our campaign to stop the harmful practice.

Forced prepayment meter switching means violating people’s homes and taking away their control over how they pay their bills. It also means forcing people like Sarah to live with higher bills and the constant fear of disconnection from power – if they can’t top up the meter, they get cut off. Yet it’s a practice that has gone unchallenged in the energy industry until recently.

But things are finally changing. For months, we’ve been among the voices demanding energy suppliers do the right thing, and put people over profit.

Just before Christmas, OVO told us they would agree to suspend forced installation for the Christmas period – the company later confirmed they haven’t since restarted it.

We also helped 1,968 people send personal emails directly to the CEOs of their energy suppliers, urging them to make a change, with many people sharing their personal stories of forced switching. Ramping up public pressure, we then handed in our petition, signed by over 100,000 people, to the UK’s ‘big six’ energy suppliers, showing them the British public was paying attention to this issue.

Then, on Wednesday, February 1, the same week we handed in our petition, The Times unveiled a powerful front page story, the result of a month-long undercover investigation which showed how debt collectors employed by British Gas were breaking into homes, installing prepayment energy meters, and leaving vulnerable families without power.

The details were nauseating: debt collectors rifling through people’s possessions, using their toilets and laughing at their vulnerabilities.

After months of people sounding the alarm and demanding energy companies confront what they were doing, this proved to be the tipping point. First, British Gas suspended forced transfers and opened an internal investigation. By Thursday, other suppliers had followed suit, then Ofgem announced a sector-wide suspension and investigation. Energy secretary Grant Shapps accused the regulator of “having the wool pulled over their eyes” and failing to listen to customers, before ordering all companies to take action.

While this investigation shone a spotlight on truly horrific practices which had been going on, it didn’t come from nowhere. The Times story may have knocked down the dominoes, but it took thousands of us coming together, for months, to set them up.

Interviewed on Times Radio on the morning that the newspaper’s investigation broke, 38 Degrees Campaign Manager Veronica Hawking summed it up, saying:

“It’s not an exaggeration to say people are routinely being terrorised in their own homes.

“It’s really callous this behaviour, and it’s sickening to hear, but it isn’t really surprising to us, because we know that these practices are not unusual, they are commonplace and they’re widespread across the industry.”

It’s clear that, at last, a change is coming in the energy industry, and it’s thanks in no small part to the tens of thousands of us who put this issue onto the agendas of politicians, journalists and energy company bosses.

But there’s more to do. Although Ofgem has ordered the suspension of forced installation, they’ve stopped short of enforcing a full-on ban.

Even if the practice is banned for good, that will still leave thousands of people trapped on the prepayment meters that were forced into their homes in such a traumatic way.

Meanwhile, energy companies are still allowed to continue remote switching: changing the mode of smart meters from standard to prepayment mode, without customers’ consent.

We’ve made a start, but we won’t stop until Britain has a fair energy system that ensures struggling families aren’t abandoned in the cold and the dark at the very moment they’re most in need of help.

If you want to see real, long-term change, sign our petition to the Prime Minister, demanding he fix our broken energy system now, and sign up to hear more about our upcoming energy campaigns.

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