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Do smart meters make it easier to force people to pre-pay?

Lisa Bonner was getting ready for the school run on a crisp morning two months ago when an email from her energy supplier popped up on her phone.

The message sent her into a panic. EDF was writing to inform her that the supply to her three-bedroom semi had been switched to a so-called prepayment meter.

That meant from then on, the mother of three and her husband Nick, 51, would have to keep their account topped-up at all times — or their power might be cut off suddenly.

Threat: The widespread adoption of smart meters means companies no longer have to come face-to-face with the people they are cutting off

Threat: The widespread adoption of smart meters means companies no longer have to come face-to-face with the people they are cutting off

Not only that, but their bills were likely to be even higher because the pay-as-you-go prepayment tariff would be pricier than their old one.

The worst part? The 45-year-old, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, hadn’t given EDF her permission for the switch.

The firm was able to take matters into its own hands because Lisa had agreed to install a smart meter in her home six months previously.

Thanks to the high-tech devices — which show your energy usage in real time and send meter readings automatically to suppliers — energy firms can switch customers on to different tariffs remotely.

And, crucially, if a household does not pay, gets into debt or fails to pay bills on time, the supplier can use a smart meter to turn off their power. All it takes is the click of a button in an office hundreds of miles away.

By the end of this winter, consumer charity Citizens Advice estimates 180,000 households will have been switched to prepayment plans via their smart meter.

Suppliers say they are doing this to stop families running up large debts. The average dual-fuel energy bill has risen to £2,500 a year — or more than £200 a month — and many families are expected to struggle to keep up payments.

While moving customers to prepayment meters could help them manage their outgoings, it will also make homes vulnerable to being cut off.

In simple terms, that means the risk of blackouts if they cannot afford to top-up their account balance regularly.

In the industry, switching customers onto prepayment plans is confusingly referred to as ‘self-disconnection’.

Citizens Advice says it has heard from 500 people who have been pushed onto prepayment meters this year — a 158 per cent rise on the same period in 2021.

In one case, a single mother with a young baby was moved remotely onto a prepayment plan while on maternity leave.

It meant she could not even boil the kettle to make bottles for her child and spent the night in the dark.

Hidden agenda: Providers are now being accused of pushing smart meters onto homes as it makes it easier to disconnect them

Hidden agenda: Providers are now being accused of pushing smart meters onto homes as it makes it easier to disconnect them

Some households have already been left without lights and heating for weeks at a time, according to regulator Ofgem.

An Ofgem spokesman says: ‘In extreme cases the reports we’ve received suggest this has led to some vulnerable customers being left without power for days or even weeks. This is completely unacceptable.’

Prepayment energy plans mean that customers have to top up their accounts themselves when their balance runs low.

With a smart meter, this is online via an app. Or households can use a prepayment keycard which can be topped up in post offices and PayPoint zones, often located in newsagents. The tariffs are more expensive, too.

Prepayment customers will spend an estimated £258 more on their energy this winter than someone paying by direct debit, according to research from Citizens Advice.

Get help with energy saving ideas in our guide to saving money on energy bills and understanding what you pay. 

Prepayment meter switch no longer done face-to-face

In the past, suppliers had to send staff round to a customer’s house if they were in debt and the company wanted to change their payment plan.

But the widespread adoption of smart meters means firms no longer have to come face-to-face with the people that they are cutting off.

Firms typically try to move customers to prepayment plans only once they have fallen into debt on their accounts set up with a direct debit, and the supplier is struggling to get payment.

 I couldn’t believe EDF was able to switch my account without my consent. I don’t know if we’ll be able to put the heating on now

However, rules set by Ofgem stipulate households must consent to the switch.

Lisa says that she had fallen into around £300 of debt on her energy account.

About a month before the switch to a prepayment meter, EDF cancelled her direct debit.

Although Lisa — whose children Fiona, seven, Madison, ten, and 12-year-old India all live at the family home — says she never consented to the change, EDF insists it sent her a warning letter about moving the account to a prepayment tariff.

‘I couldn’t believe EDF was able to switch my account without my consent,’ she says.

‘I don’t know if we’ll be able to put the heating on now.’

Earlier this month Ofgem wrote to suppliers warning that it had heard of ‘alarming’ cases where customers were not being consulted over these switches.

Bigger bills: Prepayment customers will spend an estimated £258 more on their energy this winter than someone paying by direct debit, according to Citizens Advice

Bigger bills: Prepayment customers will spend an estimated £258 more on their energy this winter than someone paying by direct debit, according to Citizens Advice

Ofgem would not say how it would be taking action against firms breaking its rules.

Lisa’s cancer diagnosis should have flagged her up as being a ‘vulnerable’ customer — meaning more protections should have been in place before a supplier shut off the power to her house.

EDF says it was unaware of Lisa’s illness, and insists her account was moved only as a last resort.

It notified her in August that her direct debit was being cancelled and says it sent several emails telling her how she could access support.

The company says it first sent a letter explaining its intention to push her onto a prepayment plan and she had a week to respond — which she failed to do.

She then had a further 14-day ‘non-disconnection’ period during which she could query her new plan.

But Lisa insists she had tried to call EDF to discuss her options before the company disconnected her.

 If I was ever in a situation where I might not be able to afford my energy bills I would not touch a smart meter with a barge pole

EDF accepts a call took place but says a resolution was not found at the time.

She says: ‘I have three girls, I’m now in a position where we might not be able to put the heating on.

‘If it gets to the last week of the month and we’re running low, I might not have a spare £10 to top the meter up.’

Some 29.5 million smart meters have been fitted in homes and small businesses across Britain.

They were sold to customers as a way to ensure that their bills were accurate by recording households’ energy usage in real time.

No mention has ever been made in publicity for the meters, that they can be used to cut families’ gas and electricity off remotely.

Data expert Nick Hunn, who runs technology consultancy WiFore, says that the situation is very worrying for consumers.

He adds: ‘Smart meters effectively give suppliers a button they can press to disconnect customers without having to send anybody round.

‘If I was ever in a situation where I might not be able to afford my energy bills I would not touch a smart meter with a barge pole.

‘When smart meters first started to be rolled out, the idea they could remotely disconnect households was always on suppliers’ minds.’

A Smart Energy GB spokesman says: ‘Suppliers should be following strict rules set by Ofgem, including offering ways to help customers repay money they owe.

‘And they can only switch a meter to prepay mode where it is safe to do so.

‘These rules apply whatever kind of meter you have.’

According to Ofgem rules, a supplier can only move you onto a prepayment meter as a last resort if your account has unpaid debt. However, it must write to you explaining that you have 28 days in which to pay off the arrears.

After that, it is able to write to you informing you that you are being moved to a prepayment meter.

But they must give seven days’ formal notice for a gas meter and seven working days’ notice for an electric one.

Suppliers cannot, however, force vulnerable customers — for example, those over the state pension age or those with children under five — to have a prepayment meter installed.

Once the debt has been repaid, customers can ask their energy supplier to be moved back onto a direct-debit account.

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Folkestone dubbed the new Whitstable after undergoing a dramatic transformation

Every year around this time we hear of plans to regenerate run-down seaside towns and dreary resorts, from Margate to Morecambe. 

Yet none could match the dramatic transformation of Folkestone on Kent’s south coast.

Just ten years ago, Folkestone was on the slide. ‘I moved here in 2015 from Gran Canaria to work in a hotel and parts of the town, notably the harbour area, were scary — so I moved on to Canterbury,’ says Alex Rodriguez, 31, now a freelancer working in corporate communications.

Turning the tide: The Kent seaside town’s once off-limits harbour is now an enticing location

Turning the tide: The Kent seaside town’s once off-limits harbour is now an enticing location

‘Then I heard about the changes going on, so in 2020 I moved back here with my husband and picked up a three-bedroom Victorian end-terrace house for £240,000. 

I have never regretted it — Folkestone nowadays has a really cool vibe and beautiful scenery.’

It is difficult to imagine the Folkestone that Alex found back in 2015. Much of the harbour and seafront was occupied by railway sidings, a squalid fairground and a flea market. The Old Town area was, to put it bluntly, a slum.

It took the ambition of Sir Roger De Haan to create the Folkestone of today. He bought the town’s harbour in 2004 with a view to regenerating it.

‘My parents started [travel company] Saga and when I sold the company in 2004 [for £1.35 billion] I was still only in my late 50s and I needed to carry on working,’ Sir Roger told me. ‘I decided on four strands of regeneration: education, buildings, the arts and sport.’

These areas were in desperate need of attention. Folkestone had one of the five least academically successful secondary schools in England. 

With an investment of £34 million, Sir Roger had architect Norman Foster design a replacement and it is now judged ‘good’ by Ofsted. 

Sir Roger also helped set up performance venues and ploughed money into a variety of sports facilities.

But the flagship of the new-look Folkestone is a development of 84 apartments on the sea-front. Set on shingle at the top of the beach, it is built of glistening white, glazed bricks. 

Broad balconies give the exterior a Gaudi-esque look, while inside the curvature of the tall windows means rooms are bathed in light. Materials of wood and pebble echo the seaside theme.

Prices range from £430,000 for a one-bedroom flat to £2.2 million for a penthouse. Six more blocks are planned, totalling 1,000 units (

Nearby is the restored Harbour Arm, with its champagne bar, food stalls. Stroll south along the seafront and you pass brightly painted beach huts and a landscaped coastal path.

The revamped Old High Street is now bursting with independent shops and studios — not unlike popular and chi-chi Whitstable on the north Kent coast.

‘It has a really cosmopolitan atmosphere,’ says Alex. ‘There are lots of freelancers and we meet in a coffee shop twice a week, which gives a real sense of community.’

There’s a lot to attract newcomers, with London’s St Pancras just an hour away. So, with so many seaside towns looking to re-invent themselves, what’s the secret of a successful regeneration?

‘In areas where the economy is broken, it is not enough to just fix the buildings,’ said Sir Roger. ‘You have to give the town a whole new economic purpose … there must be one over-arching grand ambition.’

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Majority of Businesses (82%) Set to Boost R&D Funding in the Next Three Years

Businesses And R&D Funding

More than 78% of R&D professionals believe that an enhanced 50% R&D tax credit will incentivise green tech development

A recent report by the Industry Research and Development Group (IRDG) and KPMG sheds light on the state of Research and Development (R&D), highlighting the urgent need for increased funding to keep pace with other leading innovation-driven nations. Titled ‘Ireland’s Innovation Index,’ the report presents insights gathered from a survey of 394 respondents representing various sectors, including engineering, technology, medical, and software.

Growing Ambitions for R&D Investment

The findings of the report reveal that a significant majority (80%) of respondents plan to boost their R&D expenditure in the next three years, while 67% have already increased their R&D budgets over the past three years. Encouragingly, only a mere 4% anticipate a decrease in future R&D spending. This heightened commitment to R&D investment underscores its critical role in driving economic growth and competitiveness.

R&D Landscape

Ireland has demonstrated commendable performance in the realm of R&D, with a substantial proportion (69%) of multinational companies considering Irish R&D grants and tax supports on par with or even superior to those offered by other countries. Only 31% expressed a less favorable opinion. Moreover, 64% of the survey respondents have taken advantage of the Research and Development Tax Credit (RDTC), while 53% have availed themselves of semi-state grant supports. These figures indicate the value that companies place on government incentives to support their innovation endeavors.

The Need for Increased Funding

Despite the positive strides made, the report highlights the pressing need for Ireland to bolster its R&D funding to match the levels seen in leading innovation-driven nations. According to the IRDG, an additional €2 billion in funding is required to bridge this gap effectively.

Embracing Sustainability and Digitalization

The report also emphasizes the potential of enhanced R&D funding in promoting green tech development. An overwhelming 78% of R&D professionals believe that an improved 50% R&D tax credit would serve as a powerful incentive to drive innovation in sustainable technologies. This highlights the need to align R&D investment with the challenges of sustainability and digitalization, ensuring continued economic prosperity and positioning Ireland as a global leader in these areas.

The Importance of Support for SMEs and FDI

Dermot Casey, CEO at IRDG, underscores the significance of increased investment in innovation, particularly in supporting innovative small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to create the next generation of Irish success stories, akin to industry leaders like Kingspan and Fexco. Additionally, such investment is crucial to bolster the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) sector. Businesses are poised to invest, but they require robust support to overcome challenges related to accessing skills, talent, and administrative burdens.

Competition in the Global Landscape

Ken Hardy, head of KPMG’s R&D incentives practice, draws attention to the intense competition among European jurisdictions, including neighboring countries like the UK, which are actively vying to attract R&D activities. In light of this landscape, Ireland must fortify its support systems and allocate a more substantial budget to maintain its competitiveness. Hardy commends the positive sentiment among over two-thirds of Irish RD&I professionals who view Ireland’s support systems as comparable to those of other countries.

Charting the Path Forward

The report underscores the urgent need for Ireland to bolster its investment in R&D, both to stimulate innovation and to address the challenges presented by sustainability and digitalization.

By increasing funding and providing comprehensive support to innovative companies, Ireland can seize opportunities for economic growth and maintain its position as a global hub for research and development. The collective efforts of industry, government, and academia will be instrumental in driving Ireland’s innovation agenda and securing a prosperous future.

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Ways Small & Medium-Sized Businesses Can Hire Big Tech Talent

In response to mounting financial concerns, tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) have recently implemented significant staff cuts. This has prompted industry leaders to reevaluate their hiring practices, recognizing the limitations of Big Tech’s ability to weather challenging economic times.

While the tech industry’s overall stability is assured, the combination of a declining economy and a previous surge in hiring has resulted in substantial job losses. However, this situation also presents an opportunity for small businesses and start-ups to tap into a pool of available tech experts.

To capitalize on this unique scenario, small and medium-sized business (SMB) owners must act swiftly to gain a competitive advantage over larger companies and attract highly skilled candidates.

In this article, John Elf, Technology Contributor at ‘Voice of EU’ and Head of Marketing at Vibertron Technologies, provides insights into some simple but effective strategies for attracting talent in a candidate-heavy market.

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) can leverage consulting services to attract the best talent, just like big tech companies do. Here’s how SMBs can make use of consulting services to enhance their talent acquisition efforts:

1. Talent Acquisition Strategy Development: SMBs can engage consulting firms specializing in talent acquisition and HR strategies to help them develop a comprehensive talent acquisition strategy. These consultants can assess the organization’s needs, identify talent gaps, and devise effective recruitment and sourcing strategies tailored to the SMB’s specific industry and requirements. This strategic approach ensures that the SMB is targeting the right candidates and maximizing its resources.

2. Employer Branding and Positioning: Consulting firms experienced in employer branding can assist SMBs in developing a strong employer brand that resonates with their target talent pool. They can help SMBs articulate their unique value proposition, culture, and growth opportunities, ensuring that the organization stands out as an attractive employer. These consultants can also provide guidance on how to effectively communicate the employer brand across various channels to attract the best talent.

3. Recruitment Process Optimization: Recruitment service provider can help SMBs, same as LCEs, optimize their recruitment processes, making them more efficient and effective. Consultants can review and streamline the entire hiring process, from job postings and candidate screening to interview techniques and selection methodologies. By improving the candidate experience and ensuring a smooth and timely process, SMBs can enhance their reputation as an employer of choice.

4. Candidate Sourcing and Evaluation: Consulting firms specializing in talent acquisition can assist SMBs in sourcing and evaluating candidates. They can leverage their networks and resources to identify top talent and conduct thorough assessments, including skill evaluations, cultural fit analysis, and background checks. By leveraging external expertise, SMBs can access a broader candidate pool and make well-informed hiring decisions.

5. Compensation and Benefits Consulting: Attracting and retaining top talent often requires competitive compensation and benefits packages. SMBs can engage consulting firms that specialize in compensation and benefits to ensure their offerings align with industry standards and meet the expectations of high-caliber candidates. These consultants can provide insights into market trends, salary benchmarks, and innovative benefit options, enabling SMBs to remain competitive in talent acquisition.

6. Training and Development Programs: SMBs can leverage consulting services to design and implement training and development programs. These programs not only help attract talent but also contribute to employee retention and growth.

Consultants can identify skill gaps, design customized training modules, and provide guidance on employee development initiatives, ensuring that SMBs create a culture of continuous learning and professional advancement.

By utilizing consulting services in talent acquisition, SMBs can access specialized expertise, best practices, and industry insights that are typically associated with larger companies. This approach enables SMBs to compete for top talent on a more level playing field, enhancing their ability to attract and retain the best candidates.

By John Elf

John Elf is Head of Marketing at Vibertron Technologies, and an Honorary Contributor at ‘Voice of EU’. A version of this article has already been published.

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