Rise in forced meter installation
Thousands more pre-payment energy meters have been forcibly installed in people's homes in recent years, according to figures released by the energy regulator.
Ofgem, which supplied the figures in response to a freedom of information request from BBC Radio 5 Live, said it is "looking into reasons behind the increase" and added that installing pre-payment meters (PPMs) under warrant should be used as a "last resort".
The BBC said the figures showed about 97,000 pre-pay gas and electricity meters were installed in England, Wales and Scotland last year.
In 2009 there were 36,837 electricity PPMs and 26,711 gas meters installed - a combined total of more than 63,000.
In 2014, the figure had risen to 49,615 for electricity and 47,876 gas - totalling about 97,000.
The numbers were highest in 2013, when a combined total of about 111,000 PPMs were installed, according to the BBC.
An Ofgem spokesman said: "Installing pre-payment meters under warrant should be used as a last resort by energy suppliers when consumers get into debt.
"It is a way to prevent a customer from being disconnected. Suppliers can only install a prepayment meter where it is safe and reasonably practical for the consumer to use."
Energy UK, a trade association for the energy industry, also described PPMs as a "last resort" but said they can help people with managing their budget.
A spokesman said: " Suppliers only install pre-payment meters at warrant as a last resort to help customers manage their debt. Pre-payment meters can help customers manage their budget where paying on a monthly or quarterly basis is not suitable for them.
"If a customer is worried about budgeting or the build-up of debt they should get in touch with their supplier or call the Home Heat Helpline on 0800 33 66 99."
Ofgem said it is working with Citizens Advice and the industry to improve the experience of pre-payment customers and to better identify and protect those who are self-disconnecting.
The regulator said suppliers should demonstrate when applying for a warrant that they have carried out appropriate checks for vulnerability.
If, for example, the customer relies on energy for medical reasons, or has mobility problems that limit their ability to access the pre-payment meter or top up the meter, the supplier is not allowed to install a pre-payment meter, Ofgem said.
The watchdog said suppliers should be doing all they can to support customers who are struggling to pay.
It said this includes the provision of energy efficiency advice, signposting to social support and setting any outstanding debt repayments on the meter at an affordable level taking into consideration the customer's financial circumstances.
Ofgem added: "Suppliers are required to treat customers fairly. We are looking into reasons behind the increase in the number of PPMs installed for non-payment of debt on a warrant visit."
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: "Prepay customers have been getting a raw deal for too long.
"They face a limited number of tariffs and pay on average £80 more a year on their energy bills than direct debit customers.
"Topping up can be difficult, with customers only able to top up in store instead of being able to add money to their meter online or over the phone."
Philip Cullum, from Ofgem, told BBC Breakfast that Ofgem is keen to get a clear message across to consumers who are in debt that the company is "obliged to help them and negotiate what's a fair rate of repayment".
He said Ofgem has "really clear" guidelines and said they do a lot of monitoring.