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British Gas fires agency it used to force prepayment meters on customers

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British Gas said that in some cases where prepayment meters were force-fitted under court warrant, things went wrong, according to a report on the findings of an internal inquiry.

The energy giant also said it would no longer use agents from the debt collection agency Arvato Financial Solutions to install the meters, bringing the job in-house to achieve better oversight.

The British Gas report said the inquiry had found “no systemic issues with prepayment meters” that cut off supply if customers failed to top up and that 90% of the 321 cases it examined were done within “the legal framework”.

Disappointing behaviour

But it conceded there had been “a limited number of cases” in which the personal situation of the customer meant the installation of a prepayment meter had been inappropriate. It also said in some cases, the behaviour of the Arvato agent “fell far below that which we would expect.” 

It said it would introduce the use of body cameras by employees installing the meters, subject to customers’ agreement.

Breaking into homes

The move follows an investigation by The Times which saw a reporter witnessing Arvato agents as they broke into the home of a single father with three children as the family were away to fit a more-expensive pay-as-you-go meter on behalf of British Gas.

It also follows an investigation by the energy regulator Ofgem.

The energy giant said it installed 20,469 prepayment meters under court warrants last year.  On average, the customers were behind on their bills by £1,255 and had been in debt to British Gas for more than a year. 

Among the hundreds of cases it analyzed, the team found 13 cases where a forced installation happened without the agent sufficiently recording considerations about known vulnerabilities, and another 13 cases with “insufficient data” that merited further examination.

‘We can, and should, do better’

Chris O’Shea, Centrica’s group chief executive, said: “I was deeply concerned when I saw the way some of our prepayment customers were treated earlier this year. It’s not how I want us to do business and I’d like to take this opportunity once again to say how sorry I am and to apologise to anyone involved in cases where our actions fell short of the high standards we set ourselves.

“I’m reassured that the investigation found no systemic issues with the treatment of prepayment customers, but it did highlight areas where we can, and should, do better.”

The energy giant said it would refund or compensate three customers who were incorrectly charged warrant costs.

It announced in March that it would cut prices for prepayment meter customers from 1 April, bringing them in line with direct debit rates. In an industry-wide move from July, energy firms will be banned from charging pre-payment households more than those paying by direct debit.

New Ofgem rules

Ofgem recently announced a new code of practice designed to bolster protections for vulnerable customers, including those age 85 and older. But critics fear the new rules still allow the forced installation of pre-payment meters where people with Alzheimer’s disease and mothers with newborn babies reside.

Grant Shapps, the energy security secretary, said: “The mistreatment of vulnerable customers by British Gas was utterly horrific. The company has no excuses, it must never happen again.”

In February, the British Gas parent company Centrica reported profit of £3.3bn for the financial year ended 2022, an increase of 250% from the previous year, in part because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Arvato Financial Solutions is a branch of the German media giant Bertelsmann.