Disabled couple struggle to pay energy bills
On Tuesday energy watchdog Ofgem introduced a new code of practice which will see a ban on installing payment meters [PPMs] for homeowners aged 85 or over, but the regulation is yet to apply for disabled people.
Charities are campaigning for the rule to protect not only disabled residents but also offer financial support if they are in energy debt.
Hayley Wolfe [pictured above], from Pulborough, West Sussex, and her husband are both disabled, their home energy runs on a prepayment meter running up exorbitant bills which the couple can not afford.
Ms Wolfe, 37, has multiple sclerosis, her energy bill has increased from £40 a fortnight to £70.
To cover the bill she has been borrowing money from the family just so the house can be heated for a few hours when the temperature drops to arctic conditions.
She believes the new code of practice does not take disabled people into consideration.
“They definitely need to go further,” she told i.
“I’ve got an elderly father who’s struggling, my mum is just retiring and she’s frightened. They’ve not had half they help they should have.
“I just feel that the Government is blinkered to how real people live. They can go home and put the heating on without worrying.
“But at the bottom of the food chain where we are, it’s a real struggle.”
Ms Wolfe’s husband lives with a muscular condition, he requires a stairlift which implies the couple may be exempt from a compulsory PPM being installed in their home, but the couple are still struggling to afford their energy bills.
“Being on a prepayment meter is not a choice really because we’re on such a strict budget,” Ms Wolfe explained.
“Every penny is accounted for. We can’t just pop to the shop and buy something.
“We used to be OK – if something came up, someone needed a new pair of shoes or something, we could budget for it.
“Now we have no room at all.
“You’re existing, you’re not living, there’s no life to it.”
Ofgem said they will consult if their voluntary code of practice can be made legally binding before the winter.
Suppliers also need to pay £30 worth of credit on any meter they install with a warrant.
Cases such as the Wolfe family are being backed by charities such as Scope who are calling for disabled people to be protected from compulsory PPM installations.
Tom Marsland, Scope’s policy manager, said: “This is a welcome step forward from Ofgem. It will now be clearer when the rules are broken, and remote switching will be included.
“But this process will still allow energy companies to install prepayment meters in some disabled households.
“We want to see the forced installation of meters and remote switching banned outright for disabled people.”
Stuart Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said: “There are really vulnerable groups which have been omitted from its full protection and we have serious concerns about how it will be implemented, such as how people will prove their medical conditions without being humiliated by an energy firm health inspection,” he said.
“The plans also fail to deal with the elephant in the room – the growing household energy debt mountain.
“This was the Government’s opportunity to take meaningful action and introduce targeted debt relief for those most in need.
“It has failed to do so and seems to have given in to energy industry demands to let them go back to the bad old days of forcing prepayment meters on to customers in distress.”
The concern from vulnerable families trying to afford fuel costs has been supported by Energy Secretary Grant Shapps who has asked suppliers to “put these words into action, so struggling families never again face such mistreatment”.
Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley said: “Ofgem’s new voluntary code of practice is a minimum standard that clearly sets out steps all suppliers must take before moving to a PPM.
“If and when involuntary PPMs are used, it must be as a last resort, and customers in vulnerable situations will be given the extra care and consideration they deserve, over and above the rules already in place, by suppliers – something that has clearly not always been happening.”
Shadow climate and net zero secretary Ed Miliband said: “Today’s action on prepayment meters is not good enough.
“It is wrong that these rules still allow those with conditions like Alzheimers, the recently bereaved, those over 75, those with young children to be forced on to prepayment meters.”
Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice, siad: “It’s now up to suppliers to follow the rules and for Ofgem to crack down quickly on any sign of bad practice.
“The regulator must also act swiftly to make this voluntary code mandatory.”
[ For information about the Energy Bills Support Scheme visit the Gov.uk website ]