British Gas halts forced prepayment meter installation
British Gas said it will temporarily stop using court orders that permit the forced installation of prepayment meters in people’s homes after a report in The Times newspaper said the practise was being used against vulnerable people.
The court warrants obtained by British Gas can be used by a contractor to break into the homes of customers who have fallen behind on their bills to install prepayment meters, meaning they could have their heating cut off if they did not pay.
Some of the customers being affected were vulnerable people, the Times said, citing instances of a father with three young children, a woman with mental health problems and a woman with a disabled daughter.
Britain’s business minister Grant Shapps said he was “horrified” by the report and the government would hold meetings with the firm’s parent company Centrica (CNA.L) to address what he called a “systemic failure”.
The energy market regulator Ofgem said an urgent investigation will be carried out, adding that it would not hesitate to take enforcement action, calling the allegations “extremely serious”.
“The energy crisis must not be an excuse for unacceptable behaviour towards any customer – particularly those in vulnerable circumstances,” an Ofgem spokesperson said in a statement.
Energy prices in Britain have rocketed this winter and despite a government support package some people are still unable to afford to heat their homes.
A typical household bill is now 2,500 pounds ($3,100) a year with government help, more than double what it was last winter.
Centrica said in a statement that it would suspend the installation of prepayment meters by court warrant until the end of winter following the Times report.
The group’s chief executive Chris O’Shea told BBC radio that he was “very disappointed” and he felt very let down by a contractor whose behaviour he called “unacceptable”.
The company has commissioned an independent report into the Times’ findings.
O’Shea said government and industry needed to address the problem of high energy bills and seek a long-term solution as it was not responsible for customers just to rack up debt.
“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,” he said. “This is not something that British Gas can solve on its own.”
About 1.2 million of British Gas’ 7.5 million customers use prepayment meters, O’Shea said. About 20,000 customers have in the past year had meters installed under warrant, which he said was in line with the industry rate.
($1 = 0.8092 pounds)
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