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Switch option for energy customers
Energy companies will allow customers on pre-payment meters with debts of up to 500 pounds switch suppliers
Tens of thousands of struggling households who owe money to their energy supplier will be freed up to switch to cheaper deals as part of a raft of new measures.
The biggest six energy suppliers - British Gas, EDF, Eon, SSE, Scottish Power and npower - will allow customers on pre-payment meters with debts of up to £500 to switch from November 1 in a bid to help them cope with utility prices which have jumped sharply in recent years.
Currently, only customers with debts of £200 or less are allowed to switch.
There are some 320,000 gas and 315,000 electricity customers with pre-payment meters who owe money to their supplier, according to energy regulator Ofgem, and it is thought tens of thousands will be helped by the move.
In most cases they racked up the debts when they were allowed credit and were slapped with pre-payment meters as part of a repayment plan.
The increase in the threshold at which customers can switch will be backed by a drive from suppliers to raise awareness of switching and making it easier to switch.
The latest initiative is part of Ofgem's push to encourage suppliers to work more effectively with households to resolve debt issues and use disconnection as a last resort.
Ofgem is due to report figures next week that will show a 59% fall in the number of people disconnected from their gas supply and a 54% drop in electricity disconnections, partly as a result of people being given more time to repay debts.
However, the average amount of debt people are repaying on their gas accounts rose to £371 in 2011, up from £339 the previous year. Meanwhile, the average electricity debt fell slightly to £357.
Sarah Harrison, senior partner for sustainable development at Ofgem, said: "We welcome the significant falls in the number of households being disconnected, but Ofgem remains determined to ensure suppliers continue to focus on helping consumers manage their energy bills and reduce their debt."