British Gas suspends applications for warrants to force-fit prepayment meters

ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi reports on Ofgem's reaction to an investigation showing debt collectors forcing entry into homes to fit prepayment energy meters

The energy regulator has launched an investigation into British Gas after an undercover reporter shone a spotlight on its prepayment meter installation practises.

British Gas has announced it will stop applying for court warrants to enter customers’ homes and fit prepayment meters, following reports they had been forced on "vulnerable" customers.

Energy companies can obtain court warrants giving them legal rights to enter people’s homes and fit prepayment meters if customers have not paid their bills.

Customers must then top up to continue receiving gas supplies, and if they fail to do so they risk their heating being cut off.

Ofgem has launched a probe after The Times reported that British Gas sends debt collectors to "break into" people’s homes and "force-fit" pay-as-you-go meters - even when customers are known to have "extreme vulnerabilities".

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The regulator called the allegations "extremely serious" and added it would not hold back from using its enforcement powers.

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 came across while working at Arvato Financial Solutions included a single father with three young children and a mother with a four-week-old baby.

Owner of British Gas, Centrica, announced it was suspending "all warrant activity" after the newspaper’s article was published.

The parent company will also launch an investigation into the claims.

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It comes as Grant Shapps urged energy companies to suspend the “outrageous” practice of forcibly installing prepayment meters.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Secretary issued the plea on Thursday evening, shortly after a meeting between his department and the chief executive of Centrica, which owns British Gas, had taken place.

The energy giant said it would stop applying for court warrants to enter customers’ homes and fit the meters following reports they had been forced on “vulnerable” people.

EDF said it had also suspended the practice while it reviewed its processes, and Mr Shapps has urged other suppliers to do the same.

He said: “EDF have now confirmed they have suspended the outrageous practice of forced installation of prepayment meters following the investigation into British Gas.

“I am now calling on all the other energy companies to confirm they are following suit.”

Business and Energy Secretary Grant Shapps Credit: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

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 [Financial Solutions] 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.

An Ofgem 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."

Mr O'Shea added that "significant challenges around affordability" meant that there was a 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," he added.

A spokesperson for Arvato Financial Solutions said: "Arvato Financial Solutions Limited acts compliantly at all times in accordance with the regulatory requirements in the areas in which we are operationally active.

"In doing so, we respect and adhere to the regulations of Ofgem as well as other regulatory bodies. Our client is British Gas, whose requirements we also follow.

"We treat customers with whom we come into contact with respect and assess their individual needs at the time of our visit.

"If there has been any verbal or any other type of misconduct by individual employees, we deeply regret it. If any inappropriate statements were made, none of these statements represent the company's views or official guidance on how to interact with consumers.

"Our bonus structure is solely focused on obtaining the most appropriate outcome for each individual customer, we do not prioritize or reward one outcome over another."

EDF said it had suspended forced installation of prepayment meters while it reviewed its processes. A spokesman said: “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.”

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