Energy regulator Ofgem has told all energy companies to suspend the forced installation of prepayment meters in customer homes, after the practice came under fire following an undercover investigation into British Gas. The Times investigation found that debt collector broke into the homes of vulnerable British Gas customers to forcibly fit the meters.
Ofgem has said that energy firms must get their “house in order”, with boss Jonathan Brearley saying that the regulator will not hesistate in taking the “strongest action in our power” if firms are found to carry out “poor practice”. Mr Brearley said: “It is astonishing for any supplier not to know about their own contractors’ behaviour, especially where they are interacting with the most vulnerable in our society. That’s why, today, I’ve asked all suppliers to review all activities regarding PPM (prepayment meter) warrants.”
British Gas and EDF had both previously announced that they will forced meter fitting in the wake of the Times report. An undercover reporter at The Times gained insight into the practice while disguised as a debt collector with contractor Arvato Financial Solutions.
British Gas allegedly gain access to a customer’s home if they have not paid their bill through a court warrant, which would provide legal rights to enter the homes without permission from the homeowner. Report suggest debt collectors would arrive at the property and a prepayement meter would be fitted without the customer’s consent - the customer would then be forced onto a pay-as-you-go plan, which means they would be shut off from energy if they did not top-up the meter.
The Times investigation claimed that “vulnerable” people were being targeted with the warrants, with the undercover reporter visiting a single father with three young children, and a mother with a four-week-old baby. Ofgem has launched an investigation into British Gas over the matter.
What has the government said about forced meter fittings?
Caroline Flint, chairwoman of the Government-sponsored fuel poverty advisory committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think energy companies have been given the benefit of the doubt on this for too long and now I think it is right to have this moratorium.
She added: “We might need new laws but I think the courts need to look to themselves on this as well. I think there is a question about how these warrants seemed to have been waved through.”
Energy minister Graham Stuart called the allegations “appalling”, shortly before he met with British Gas chief executive Jessica Taplin. He told BBC News: “It’s just appalling, it’s not good enough. Only last week British Gas announced steps they were going to take to support vulnerable customers and it turns out they were doing anything but.
“There are clear rules and they’ve obviously not been followed and, therefore, I need the regulator and the companies to do the right thing by people who are in the most difficult of circumstances and have been treated on this evidence appallingly.”
Energy regulator Ofgem confirmed that an investigation was underway into Britsh Gas following the reports. A spokesman 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.”
What has British Gas said about forced meter fittings?
Following the publishing of The Times investigation, British Gas owner Centrica confirmed that it was suspending “all warrant activity”. Alongside the Ofgem investigation, an internal investigation will also take place.
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 any time soon. 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.”
Arvato Financial Solutions have not commented on the allegations to date, but have been reached for a comment. Energy company EDF confirmed that they had followed British Gas’s decision, with a spokesperson adding: “In 2022, we applied for 13,766 warrants in relation to domestic customer debt and in around half of these cases we took the decision not to proceed once the customer had engaged and we understood their circumstances.
“We regularly review and update these processes and so we are confident they are fit for purpose. Nonetheless we are currently reviewing them again to reconfirm they are robust and see if we can make any improvements.
“We have suspended forced installation of prepayment meters while we conduct this latest review.”