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British Gas are routinely sending debt collectors into “vulnerable” customers’ homes to “force-fit” pay-as-you-go meters, an investigation has claimed. The Times says it sent an undercover reporter to work for Arvato, a firm used for debt management by the energy giant, to chase people behind on their bills.
The newspaper said a journalist accompanied agents in sub-zero temperatures working with locksmiths to “break into the home of a single father of three young children and switch it to a prepayment meter”.
It’s reported another visit saw the use of a “court warrant to force-fit a meter at the home of a young mother with a four-week-old baby”.
The paper said the woman’s bills had risen sevenfold. If prepayment meters are not kept topped up by customers, the energy supply is cut off.
The investigation also claims to have found worrying evidence of the practice of forced meter fitting being used on a woman whose “daughter is disabled and has a hoist and [an] electric wheelchair.”
British Gas told the paper it has now “suspended” force-fitting prepayment meters and the energy giant said it had begun an investigation, adding: “This is not who we are — it’s not how we do business.”
This month Citizens Advice data showed 3.2 million people were cut off last year and left in the dark and cold after running out of prepay credit.
In contrast Centrica, the owner of British Gas, has reported it expects a seven times increase in net profits for 2021 due to spiking energy costs.
Grant Shapps, the business and energy secretary, branded the behaviour “abhorrent” and said he was horrified by the details undearthed by the newspaper.
The minister had said in December he had written to energy firms asking them to stop force-fitting prepayment meters.
Under current legislation firms may apply to magistrates’ court for a warrant to enter customers’ homes if they fall behind on bills. Energy regulator Ofgem says the powers should only be used as a last resort and not when customers are “very vulnerable”.
A spokesman told The Times: “These are extremely serious allegations from The Times. We won’t hesitate to take firm enforcement action.”
Arvato said it always acted in accordance with its regulatory requirements and any inappropriate comments from its staff did not reflect the company’s views or policies.
Centrica CEO Chris O’Shea told Express.co.uk: “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. 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.”
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