POVERTY campaigners are calling on ministers to ban the forced installation of prepayment meters fearing people will die as it can be revealed that a "staggering" 100 unpaid bill warrants to have the right to enter homes have been typically lodged every day by energy companies in the cost of living crisis.

Energy Action Scotland and the Poverty Alliance have joined forces to ask the justice secretary for a hiatus on the procedure in advance of a review as it emerged that an average of at least 16 warrants a day were being approved by courts at the start of last year to forcibly enter homes over unpaid gas and electricity bills.

They have called on Keith Brown to order an examination of the conditions surrounding how warrants are being approved by sheriff courts that allow energy suppliers to access people's homes to install the meters.

Energy Action Scotland chief executive Frazer Scott fears that people will die because the most vulnerable who are forced onto meters can have their supplies cut when they cannot afford it - unlike with traditional meters where there is no disconnection.

Court data seen by the Herald says that 32,471 Warrants For Entry were lodged and 4,822 had so far been granted in the first ten months of last year. It has been estimated that the numbers granted is over treble that accumulated for the whole of 2020.

But it is understood that because of difficulties within the court system of recording the number of warrants granted, which relate to a small number of court locations the actual numbers may well be far greater.

And campaigners say even this may be the tip of the iceberg as the vast majority of warrants, which are the end of a months-long process, would relate to those that arose prior to the early part of 2022 as the energy crisis and the soaring levels of people's bills was beginning to unfold.

HeraldScotland:

There are concerns that energy companies are now using prepayment meters more often as a method of revenue protection and that courts are rubber stamping warrants to force the switches without doing health checks.

There are also concerns over firms switching smart meters from credit to pre-payment mode, forcibly installing prepayment meters remotely.

The regulator Ofgem has already written to suppliers over "possible failings" in automatically switching to prepayment meters without the customer's permission and without suppliers having “full regard” to a billpayer’s situation, saying in some cases some vulnerable customers were being left without power for days or even weeks.

During last summer there were estimated to be nearly 500,000 Scots customers on prepayment meters, of which 203,484 are smart meters and 294,459 are traditional meters.

It is estimated that over 15,000 Scots households with smart meters were remotely switched to more costly prepayment plans by their energy supplier in 2021. And around 6,000 households were estimated to have been switched over a three month period till November, last year alone.

Scottish Gas has said it will stop switching people onto prepayment meters via their smart meters when they struggle to pay their bills.

As half of all meters in Scotland are old and non-smart, for an energy supplier to complete the process of movement from an older credit meter to prepayment they require a warrant to be issued by courts in Scotland under the Gas Act 1986 and the Electricity Act 1989, which gives suppliers rights to enter a customer's home.

Former justice secretary and fair energy prices campaigner Kenny MacAskill, the MP the for East Lothian and Alba Party deputy leader said: "The Scottish Government should be seeking to advise that warrants must not be issued. Justice demands it."

Concerns over affordability heightened in April, last year, when around 1.5 million Scots saw their energy bills soar by up to £693 from April 1 after the regulator Ofgem hiked the price cap by the biggest increase yet.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 catapulted the price of gas and oil to record levels - with the price cap soaring and bills set to go even higher later in the year.

The three in four customers on default tariffs paying by direct debit were to see dual fuel bills from last April rise from £1,277 to £1971 while the rest who are on prepayment meters were to see a rise of £708 from £1,309 to £2017.

As Ofgem were predicted to set typical bills at £3,549 a year from October while there were predictions it would go as high as £4500 this year - the UK government in September set a freeze on average bills at £2500 annually.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt then announced in November that the price freeze would rise by £500 to £3000 from April. That's still over £1000-a-year more than consumer were paying last year.

Energy firms’ licence conditions provides that a supplier should not disconnect in winter and that disconnection should be a last resort. The safeguards for vulnerable people place the onus on the supplier to ensure the right support is in place for the customer.

But there are concerns that the rise in sanctioned warrants are not considering the vulnerability of those affected.

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Mr Scott said: "There needs to be a hiatus to ensure that the process is robust and fair.

"You are more likely to be without energy for periods with a prepayment meter unlike with a normal credit meter.

"There doesn't feel as if there is a qualitative process going on where there is a risk to the health of people. I am not sure the legal process is providing the protection and to get a sense of what is right on wrong. There has to be a check on whether it is safe to switch to prepayment, and if there is a detrimental impact on the person. "The process needs to ensure that not a single medically vulnerable person moves from credit to prepayment without their consent and without their ability to stay on supply.

"In the most extreme circumstances, people could die. You have to raise the spectre that someone does die as a result of this process, because they have a prepayment meter and they cannot afford to put money in. Whose responsibility is that.

If the worst-case scenario occurs you could question the corporate culpability of suppliers. It feels like new territory for many struggling households."

He said concerns that households did not even receive court notifications that warrants were being sought.

He wants the Scottish Government to speak to the judiciary to halt the warrant process and also consider a new requirement for remote digital switching of households without customer permission to have a judicial stage.

"The history of why there needs to be warrants for access seem to date back to the late 1950s, the gas and electricity acts of the 80’s and 90’s came, but surely could not have foreseen the current circumstance nor indeed the existence of digital meters and remote switching.

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"I heard an industry figure relate the remote switching and changing from credit to prepay to what happens in broadband services and mobile phones. It is certainly nothing like that.

"Energy, water and food are all essential. The absence of these essential inevitably leads to health and wellbeing declines, the absolute absence leads to hospitalisation and death. Certainly not the same as broadband or mobile phones.

The letter to Mr Brown from Energy Action and Poverty Alliance which calls for a review over the procedure to force people onto prepayment meters says that those on them are also likely to pay up to 10% more for their energy than direct debit customers.

"Given the current challenges related to the rising cost of living, this means that poorer and more vulnerable households will be substantially disadvantaged over those allowed to maintain a credit account," they said.

According to a Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service request for information over numbers hit by warrants indicates issues in getting clear data as they say courts have no operational reason to retain copies of the warrant, or to record whether it was granted or refused.

"The courts only operational information in respect of utility warrants is for the purpose of processing of court fees. I regret to advice that it is not possible to record the number of warrants granted retrospectively, as the warrant paperwork is returned to the applicant.

"That being said, whilst the courts are not required to record the number of applications granted, our investigations have identified that a small number of courts have recorded the number of warrants granted."

They said that prior to coming to court the utility company requires to have made all reasonable efforts to obtain the consent of the occupier to exercise their right of entry under the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954 Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954. This usually takes the form of the utility company writing to their customer and visiting the customer’s home/business.

If no consent is given by the customer and the company intends to seek a warrant to enter the premises then the utility company must inform the customer of their intention to do this by letter. This 'human rights' letter must be sent to the customer at least 14 days prior to the application for a warrant being heard by a Justice of the Peace and must advise the customer where the application will take place and when.

If there are any objections received the JP will not grant the warrant and the utility company must make their application for a warrant by summary application to the Sheriff. "

The service said there was "no fast tracking of this procedure" and a JP will not grant a warrant if evidence of the letter being "There is no fast tracking of this procedure and the JP will not grant a utility warrant if evidence of the letter being posted is not provided.