Energy regulator launches British Gas investigation over prepayment meters

Debt collectors allegedly broke into homes to fit meters despite signs of children and vulnerable people living there

The energy regulator has launched an investigation into British Gas after it emerged that agents working on its behalf ignored customers’ vulnerabilities.

Ofgem said it would not “hesitate to take firm enforcement action” against the energy supplier after it was alleged that Arvato Financial Solutions, a company used by British Gas to pursue debts, had broken into homes to fit meters when there were signs that young children and people with disabilities lived in the property.

British Gas customers who have had their meters fitted by force recently included a mother whose “daughter is disabled and has a hoist and [an] electric wheelchair” and a woman in her 50s described in job notes as “severe mental health bipolar”, a Times investigation found.

Graham Stuart, the energy minister, was due to meet with British Gas on Thursday afternoon.

A spokesman for the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said: “Vulnerable families should not be treated so poorly. The findings suggest that British Gas has failed to use every possible avenue to support those struggling with energy bills, as they rightly deserve and are entitled to.”

Separately on Thursday, Ofgem named British Gas among a string of suppliers it said needed to improve their customer service after an extensive review.

An Ofgem spokesperson said: “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.

“We are clear that suppliers must work hard to look after their customers at this time, especially those who are vulnerable. The energy crisis is no excuse for unacceptable behaviour towards any customer, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances.”

British Gas has suspended the use of court warrants to force the installation of prepayment meters in response. It had stopped switching people on to prepayment meters remotely through smart meters after complaints about the practice.

MPs and consumer groups have raised concerns that elderly and disabled people are being forced on to prepayment meters and then routinely cut off from heat and power as they could not afford to top up.

Citizens Advice said this month that 3.2 million people – one person every 10 seconds – were last year being left in cold and dark homes as they ran out of credit.

Ofgem’s customer service review of the 17 biggest domestic energy suppliers found evidence that suppliers were not picking up phone calls and provided inconsistent scripts for staff handling complex inquiries, while up to 50% of customers gave up and hung up as calls went answered.

It identified “severe weaknesses” with E.ON, saying its waiting times and abandoned call rates were “very poor” and represented a “severe deterioration” since its last analysis.

Ofgem said it had found “moderate weaknesses” in the service provided by British Gas, E Gas & Electricity, EDF, Good Energy, Outfox the Market, Ovo, ScottishPower, So Energy, Utilita, Utility Warehouse and TruEnergy.

Neil Lawrence, director of retail at Ofgem, said: “From being on hold for too long, to not being given clear information, or sometimes not getting through to suppliers at all, this review has highlighted that customer service is just not good enough.”

Nearly 30 suppliers have collapsed since the start of the energy crisis in 2021 while consumers have seen their bills more than triple.


Alex Lawson Energy correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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