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British Gas investigated over claims agents broke into homes to fit prepay meters

Rebecca Goodman
Written By:
Rebecca Goodman

The energy regulator has launched an urgent investigation following claims that agents working on behalf of British Gas broke into the homes of vulnerable customers to fit prepayment meters.

The claims, made as part of an investigation by The Times, alleged that debt agents working for Arvato Financial Solutions on behalf of British Gas, forced their way into homes to install the energy meters.

In one case, a reporter who accompanied the agent, claimed to have watched as they broke into the unoccupied home of a single father with three children to fit the pricier pay-as-you-go meter.

British Gas has now suspended these installations “until at least the end of the winter” off the back of these claims.

Centrica CEO, Chris O’Shea, said: “Protecting vulnerable customers is an absolute priority and we have clear processes and policies to ensure we manage customer debt carefully and safely. The allegations around our third-party contractor Arvato are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant activity.

“Having recently reviewed our internal processes to support our prepayment customers as well as creating a new £10 million fund to support those prepayment customers who need help the most, I am extremely disappointed that this has occurred. As a result, on Wednesday morning, we took a further decision to suspend all our prepayment warrant activity at least until the end of the winter.”

‘Unacceptable for any supplier to impose forced installations’

Energy companies are already under fire for their ‘backdoor tactics’ in installing prepayment meters both physically and remotely via smart energy meters without the billpayer’s knowledge as energy debt soared to £2.5bn at the start of the year, the highest level seen in over a decade.

Energy regulator Ofgem said it has launched an investigation into the energy giant and ‘won’t hesitate to take firm enforcement action’.

It comes a week after the watchdog opened a review of energy firms’ “checks and balances” when it comes to forced prepayment meter installations, where it threatened to take legal action if they’re found not to have taken “due care”.

An Ofgem spokesperson said: “These are extremely serious allegations from The Times. We are launching an urgent investigation into British Gas and we won’t hesitate to take firm enforcement action.

“It is unacceptable for any supplier to impose forced installations on vulnerable customers struggling to pay their bills before all other options have been exhausted and without carrying out thorough checks to ensure it is safe and practicable to do so.

“We have launched a major market-wide review investigating the rapid growth in prepayment meter installations and potential breaches of licences driving it.”

Energy firms are allowed to install prepayment meters into the homes of customers who are in debt, but only under certain circumstances and they must follow strict rules including offering alternatives and help with managing debts. See YourMoney.com’s Moving to energy prepayment meter: Everything you need to know.

Earlier this week, Ofgem said it was considering introducing a subsidy to level energy costs for prepayment meter and direct debit customers. This is because those with a prepayment meter pay higher costs on average than those with a standard meter.

‘Serious reforms must be made before suppliers can be trusted again’

Charity Citizens Advice has called on a complete ban of forced energy meter installations and said the latest claims are “truly shocking.”

It said it saw more people who can’t top up their prepayment meter last year than in the whole of the last decade combined.

The charity said moving a customer to a prepayment meter is effectively cutting them off from their energy supply, with one in five who had been cut off saying they spent at least 24 hours without gas or electricity, leaving them unable to heat their homes or cook a hot meal.

Gillian Cooper, head of energy policy at Citizens Advice, said: “It’s truly shocking to see the extent of bad practices amongst some energy suppliers.

“Our frontline advisers know only too well the desperate situations so many struggling customers have found themselves in. Time and time again we have called for a ban on forced prepayment meter installations until new protections for customers are brought in.

“Ofgem and the Government need to act now – serious reforms must be made before these suppliers can be trusted again.”