The Pre-payment Meter Scandal

The i Paper

As fuel bills rocketed in 2022, Dean Kirby exposed a national scandal: energy suppliers were increasingly using court warrants to force entry into the UK’s poorest homes to forcibly fit prepayment meters – leaving vulnerable families in the cold and dark. In 40 stories, including six front pages, over four-months, Kirby’s investigation changed Government policy, sparked multiple Ofgem investigations and lead to one of the country’s most senior judges to instruct every court in England and Wales to stop granting the warrants immediately.

Kirby’s research started in September when he asked anti-poverty charities about their fears for the coming winter. They all said two words: prepayment meters. Paying for energy by this method can force the poorest families to “self-disconnect” their supply and live without light or heat. As one charity worker said: “Living without gas or electricity isn’t like camping out with Bear Grylls. You can’t cook a hot meal for your kids. You can’t wash their clothes for school.”

Kirby discovered energy firms and their agents force entry into homes using an outdated law, the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954. After being told it was impossible, Kirby finally accessed a hearing in Wigan. What he witnessed was extraordinary – in just three minutes and 51 seconds, the magistrates granted 496 warrants to a debt agent dialling in by telephone. It remains the only hearing to be seen by a journalist.

Digging deeper into this hidden court process, Kirby made the first of nine Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Justice and revealed another startling figure – that courts had granted nearly 500,000 prepayment meter warrants since the last Covid lockdown in July 2021. He showed how courts were granting up to 13,000 a month with cases heard hundreds of miles from customers’ homes, and how magistrates had no overview of people’s vulnerabilities. Kirby revealed in another FOI request that the Ministry of Justice did not record why warrants were granted. In the weeks after the initial story on 5 December, MPs and Lords asked more than 200 questions in Parliament. Ed Miliband told the Commons it was a “national scandal”. Rishi Sunak was twice asked questions at PMQs. A petition was signed by 100,000 people. Forty MPs sent a letter to Sunak saying they were “very concerned” by Kirby’s reports.

The first sign of change came on 23 December when firms said they were halting warrants over Christmas. On 22 January, after pressure had been building on the Government for two months, Energy Secretary Grant Shapps told “trigger happy” suppliers to stop the practice. Ofgem ordered a review.

On 6 February, Lord Justice Edis, the senior presiding judge of England and Wales, told every court to stop processing warrants – effectively banning their use. In September of this year, Ofgem announced a new code of conduct banning energy companies from forcing prepayment meters on elderly people or families with children under two.