Pensioner calls for end of 'horrendous' practice of forcible instalment of prepayment meters

All energy companies have been told to stop forcibly installing prepayment meters in their customers' homes - ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi has the latest

A pensioner whose smart meter was switched to pre-pay mode after she slipped into debt while in hospital believes there should be a permanent ban on energy companies forcing customers onto prepayment meters.

Audrey Ritson's energy company did not need to enter her home, or obtain a court warrant to switch her smart meter to prepay mode.

She later received an apology from OVO and more than £300 in compensation - but she thinks a change in the practice is needed, particularly to help those struggling with paying bills.

"Why are they going to risk people being without electric, gas? You know it shouldn't be in this day and age. It is absolutely horrendous," Ms Ridson told ITV News.

The power firm said they tried to contact her before the switch and subsequently switched the meter back.

Her comments came after Ofgem ordered all domestic energy companies to suspend the system of forcibly installing prepayment meters after British Gas came under fire for its practises.

On Thursday, an undercover reporter revealed some British Gas customers have faced debt collectors "breaking into homes" to install the meters.

Energy companies can obtain court warrants which give them legal rights to enter people’s homes and fit prepayment meters if customers have not paid their bills.

Customers must then top up to continue receiving gas supplies and, if they fail to do so, they risk their heating being cut off – but the government has said that forcible meter fittings “should only ever be a last resort”.

Energy minister Graham Stuart has asked Centrica, which owns the energy giant, to urgently outline compensation for “mistreated customers”, while regulator Ofgem has called for “action, not warm words”. Shares in Centrica plunged by more than 3% on Thursday – one of the biggest fallers on the FTSE 100.

Debt collectors were captured forcing entry into homes to fit prepayment energy meters

This follows a Times investigation which revealed how customers – including disabled and mentally ill people – have been forced by British Gas on to the pay-as-you-go meters, or face having their gas switched off.

An undercover reporter for the newspaper worked for debt collecting contractor Arvato Financial Solutions and accompanied agents who used court warrants to gain entry into customers’ homes to force-fit the meters.

Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley said he has “warned all domestic energy suppliers to get their house in order on forced instalments of prepayment meters”, while ordering the “biggest ever market review” into the meters to “uncover poor practice”.

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“I will not hesitate to take the strongest action in our powers where needed,” he said. “No energy CEO can shirk their legal and moral responsibilities to protect their own customers, especially the most vulnerable." Mr Brearley added that he has asked all suppliers to review “all activities regarding prepayment meter warrants” until they can “reassure” Ofgem that their processes are compliant with the regulator’s rules.

Energy and climate minister Graham Stuart said he was “horrified” to read about the “mistreatment” of these customers, and said he would “make sure justice prevails” following a meeting with Centrica’s chief executive Chris O’Shea.

He said: “I have asked Mr O’Shea to report back to me urgently outlining the role he will take personally to fix these very serious cultural issues. “I told him I want to see these vulnerable, mistreated customers identified and redress provided."

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British Gas, along with several more energy companies including EDF, have suspended the practice, while the Times has said Scottish Power and E.ON have also followed suit. OVO and Octopus Energy said they have not used the practice recently. Centrica’s Mr O’Shea said: “Protecting vulnerable customers is an absolute priority and we have clear processes and policies to ensure we manage customer debt carefully and safely. “The allegations around our third-party contractor Arvato are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant activity.”

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