Hundreds of thousands of homes with smart meters have been remotely switched to more expensive prepayment plans in the past six years.
Over 350,000 smart meters were remotely switched to repay debt between 2017 and 2023, The Telegraph can reveal.
It comes as Ofgem, the energy regulator, is set to bring in new rules setting a “minimum standard” that limits when firms can forcibly change a customer’s tariff. Campaigners are also calling on the Government to outlaw the practice altogether.
The number of remote switches rose fivefold in the five years to 2021, but dropped 61pc in 2022 to 58,977 from over 152,000 the year before, according to official figures, as the Government stepped in to shield consumers from surging costs by raising the energy price cap and introducing the Energy Price Guarantee.
Britain’s smart meter rollout has been billed as a cost-saver for households by its supporters, but has saddled billpayers with three million “dumb” devices that can no longer submit automatic readings to suppliers.
Energy providers have faced criticism for using smart meters to remotely force indebted customers onto more costly prepayment meters without a warrant, which is required to enter a home and manually install one.
Gillian Cooper, head of energy policy at charity Citizens Advice, said: “As energy bills rocketed last year, far too many people were forced onto a prepayment meter they couldn’t afford to keep topped up – often despite clear evidence they could suffer harm if their credit ran out.
“Ofgem’s code of practice is a much-needed improvement in the protections people have against forced installations, including remote switches…These protections must be in place by winter or history could repeat itself.”
Prepayment tariffs are on average £21 a year more expensive than ordinary meter tariffs, according to Department of Energy Security and Net Zero, which announced this month that it would fund an elimination of prepayment premiums until April 2024, when Ofgem is expected to bring in further measures scrapping them permanently.
In February, Ofgem imposed a temporary ban on forced switches ahead of updating its code of practice, under which suppliers will be required to make at least 10 attempts to contact a customer before making an involuntary switch and conduct a welfare visit before doing so.
Suppliers are also banned from carrying out involuntary installations of prepayment meters for customers who are over the age of 85 and those who require a continuous supply of energy for health reasons. Installers must also wear body cameras and apply £30 of credit after a meter has been switched either remotely or in-person.
In a year marked by the cost of living crisis, 4,914 people on average were remotely switched to prepayment meters every month of 2022, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The most remote switches occurred in the three months from July to September, which saw just over 16,758 in total.
Campaigners have said that the latest rules do not go far enough and called on the Government to enact an outright ban on the practice of involuntarily switching customers’ meters.
Simon Francis, coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said: “We know that the majority of smart meter switches to PPM mode take place due to debt. This highlights the need for the Government working with charities and energy firms to develop a ‘help to repay’ scheme for the nation’s surging levels of household energy debt.
“Switching a smart meter to prepayment mode without a customers’ explicit and informed consent is as good as forcing them to self-disconnect… the Government must amend the Energy Bill to ban forced switching to traditional or smart prepayment meters when the legislation comes back to the House of Commons in September.”
While it is not clear what proportion of remote switches since 2017 were involuntary, as opposed to voluntary switches where the customer agrees or requests the change, the quarterly number of switches fell by 40pc on the 2022 average during the first three months of 2023 when the moratorium on forcing PPMs on customers came into effect.
The total number of remote switches between 2017 and the first quarter of 2023 was 354,118, according to Ofgem’s figures.
Households that cannot afford to top up their meter risk being disconnected from their power entirely and suppliers are able to dock outstanding debt from the top ups.
The switches, which have been criticised by charities, are now expected to become less common as more rules are brought in.