British Gas debt collectors break into customers’ homes to force-fit prepayment meters

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Debt agents working for the company had been putting meters in the homes of people who had fallen behind on energy bills

British Gas debt collectors are breaking into the homes of struggling customers to force-fit prepayment meters, an investigation has found.

The Times reports that the company sends debt agents to “break into” people’s homes and forcibly install pay-as-you-go meters, even when customers are known to have “extreme vulnerabilities”.

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An undercover reporter for the newspaper worked for debt collecting contractor Arvato Financial Solutions and accompanied agents who used court warrants to gain entry into customers’ homes to force-fit these meters.

Some of the “vulnerable” customers the Times reporter encountered while working for the contractor included a single father with three young children and a mother with a four-week-old baby.

Energy companies are able to obtain court warrants which give them the legal right to enter people’s homes and force-fit prepayment meters if customers have not paid their bills. Once these meters are installed, customers must then top it up to continue receiving gas supplies. If they fail to do so, they risk their heating being cut off.

Energy companies are able to obtain court warrants which give them the legal right to enter people’s homes (Photo: Getty Images)Energy companies are able to obtain court warrants which give them the legal right to enter people’s homes (Photo: Getty Images)
Energy companies are able to obtain court warrants which give them the legal right to enter people’s homes (Photo: Getty Images) | Getty Images

Business Secretary Grant Shapps said he was “horrified” by the findings and said switching customers to prepayment meters “should only ever be a last resort”. Shapps has demanded that energy suppliers stop forcing financially-stretched households to switch to pay-as-you-go meters, and also vowed to “name and shame” the worst offenders.

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British Gas owner Centrica has now announced it is suspending “all warrant activity” after following The Times’ report, and the parent company is also launching an investigation into the claims.

Centrica chief executive officer 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. More broadly, there are clearly significant challenges around affordability and unfortunately, we don’t see that changing anytime soon.

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“We need to strike a balance between managing spiralling bad debt and being aware that there are those who refuse to pay and those who cannot pay. We think government, industry and the regulator need to come together to agree a long-term plan to address this and ultimately create an energy market that is sustainable.”

Energy regulator Ofgem has also announced it will launch an investigation. A spokesperson said: “These are extremely serious allegations from The Times which we will investigate urgently with 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 recently announced a major market-wide review investigating the rapid growth in prepayment meter installations and potential breaches of licences driving it. We are clear that suppliers must work hard to look after their customers at this time, especially those who are vulnerable, and the energy crisis must not be an excuse for unacceptable behaviour towards any customer – particularly those in vulnerable circumstances.”

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Ofgem to review energy firms’ prepayment checks

Hundreds of thousands of customers have been switched over to more costly prepayment meters, often unwillingly and without the offer of support, after failing to keep up with rising energy payments.

Some have found their smart meters switched to prepayment mode remotely while others have been confronted at their door by teams sent by energy companies – armed with magistrates’ court warrants – to physically make the change.

Campaigners say those switched to prepayment meters often then go without power as they cannot afford to keep the meter topped up – something that is referred to as “self-disconnection”. It comes after energy bills have soared due to rampant inflation and the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, Ofgem said it will review the checks and balances that energy firms have around placing customers on prepayment meters, warning it will take further legal action if it finds they are not taking due care.

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In a blog, the watchdog’s chief executive, Jonathan Brearley, said he is concerned about the “sharp growth in households struggling to pay their bills being switched over to prepayment meters, sometimes without their even knowing about it, leaving them without heating”.

He wrote: “The numbers of forced installation of prepayment meters is extremely high. It is simply not acceptable that vulnerable customers are left in the dark and cold in winter.

“This review will focus specifically on self-disconnections, remote switching and forced installations, and the checks and balances companies have around any decision to put a customer on a prepayment meter. If we find that they have not taken due care in this process, we will take further legal action against them.”

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