Grant Shapps urges suppliers to stop ‘outrageous’ forced meter fittings
Grant Shapps has urged energy companies to end the “egregious” practice of forcibly installing prepayment meters after reports British Gas had sent debt collectors to “break into” customers’ homes.
The Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) released the pleading on Thursday night, shortly after a meeting between his department and the chief executive of British Gas.
The energy giant said it will stop seeking court orders to enter customers’ homes and put the meters after they were reportedly forced on “vulnerable” people.
EDF said it also suspended the practice while it reviewed its processes and Mr Shapps has urged other suppliers to do the same.
He said: “EDF has now confirmed that they have stopped the outrageous practice of forcing installation of prepayment meters following the British Gas investigation.
“I now call on all other energy companies to confirm that they are following suit.”
Energy companies can obtain court orders giving them the legal right to enter people’s homes and install prepaid meters when customers have not paid their bills.
Customers will then have to charge to continue receiving gas, otherwise risking the heating being cut off.
BEIS has said that “forced customer switching should only ever be a last resort” and “would demand answers to ensure this systemic flaw is fixed”.
The department said Energy Secretary Graham Stuart held a face-to-face meeting with British Gas chief executive Jessica Taplin on Thursday afternoon while Ofgem launched an investigation into the supplier.
The Times reported that British Gas is sending debt collectors to ‘break into’ people’s homes and ‘force-grade’ negotiable utility meters – even when customers are known to have ‘extreme vulnerabilities’.
An undercover reporter for the newspaper worked for collection agency Arvato Financial Solutions and followed agents who, with court orders, entered customers’ homes to forcibly install these meters.
Some of the “at-risk” clients the Times reporter encountered while working at Arvato Financial Solutions were a single father with three young children and a mother with a four-week-old baby.
Ahead of his meeting with Ms Taplin, Mr Stuart told the BBC: “It’s just appalling, it’s not good enough. Just last week British Gas announced steps they would be taking to support vulnerable customers, and it turns out they were doing little.
“There are clear rules and they clearly haven’t been followed and that’s why I need regulators and companies to do what’s right for people who are in the most difficult of circumstances and who have been treated horribly because of this evidence.”
An Ofgem spokesman said: “These are extremely serious allegations by The Times which we will investigate urgently with British Gas and we will have no hesitation in taking strong enforcement action.
“It is unacceptable for a provider to impose compulsory installations on vulnerable customers who are struggling to pay their bills before all other options have been exhausted and without conducting thorough checks to ensure it is safe and practicable.
“We recently announced a major market-wide review examining the rapid growth in prepaid meter deployments and potential license violations driving them.
“We recognize that suppliers must work hard at this time to take care of their customers, especially those who are vulnerable, and the energy crisis must not be an excuse for unacceptable behavior towards customers – especially those in dangerous situations.”
An EDF spokesman said: “In 2022 we filed 13,766 warrants relating to domestic customer debt and in about half of those cases made the decision not to proceed after the customer intervened and we understood their circumstances.
“We regularly review and update these processes and are therefore confident that they are serving their purpose. Nonetheless, we’re currently reviewing them to reconfirm that they’re robust and see if we can make any improvements.
“We have suspended the forced installation of prepayment meters while we conduct this final review.”
Simon Francis, coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said: “Ministers have fallen for the energy industry’s delusion that they will not use court orders to install prepaid meters at vulnerable customers.
“The investigation shows that this is not the case.
“It’s time for the government to stand up to energy companies and ban the forced installation of prepayment meters and the forced conversion of smart meters to prepayment mode.
“We also now need a formal investigation into the prepaid meter scandal and the role of the courts in enabling this practice.”
British Gas owner Centrica announced it was halting “all warrant activity” after the newspaper article was published.
The parent company will also launch an investigation into the claims.
Chris O’Shea, Centrica’s Chief Executive Officer, said: “Protecting vulnerable customers is an absolute priority and we have clear processes and policies in place to ensure we manage customer debt carefully and securely.
“The allegations against our third party contractor Arvato are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant work.
“Having recently reviewed our internal processes to support our prepayment customers and set up a new £10m fund to support those prepayment customers who need help most, I am very disappointed that this has happened.
“As a result, we made another decision on Wednesday morning to suspend all our prepayment slip activities at least until the end of winter.
“More broadly, there are clearly significant affordability challenges and unfortunately we don’t see that changing anytime soon.
“We have to find a balance between managing mounting bad debts and recognizing that there are those who refuse to pay and those who cannot.
“We believe government, industry and regulators need to come together to agree on a long-term plan to address this and ultimately create a sustainable energy market.”
Arvato Financial Solutions was asked to comment, as was Energy UK, which represents suppliers.
Hundreds of thousands of customers have been switched to more expensive prepaid meters, often involuntarily and without any offer of support, after failing to keep up with soaring energy prices.
Some have found their smart meters switched to prepayment mode remotely, while others have been confronted at their door by teams sent by energy companies – armed with court orders – to physically make the change.
Just last week, Ofgem said it should review the checks and balances energy companies have to put customers on prepaid meters and warned it would take further legal action if it found they weren’t exercising due diligence.
In a blog, Watchdog chief executive Jonathan Brearley said he was concerned by the “rapid growth of households struggling to pay their bills, which are being switched to prepaid meters, sometimes without even knowing what is causing them stay without heating”.
Mr Brearley wrote: “The number of forced installations of prepayment meters is extremely high. It is simply unacceptable for vulnerable customers to sit in the dark and cold in winter.
“This review will specifically focus on self-disconnects, remote-disconnects and forced installs, and the checks and balances that businesses face in any decision to put a customer on a prepaid meter.
“If we find that they are not exercising due diligence in this process, we will take further legal action against them.”
Activists say those switched are often then without power because they can’t afford to keep the meter topped up – something called “self-interruption”.
It comes after energy bills have skyrocketed due to rampant inflation and the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.