British Gas has been found to have employed debt-collecting contractors who broke into the homes of vulnerable customers who fell behind on payments to forcibly install prepayment meters during the energy crisis.
An investigation by The Times of London in which a reporter was embedded clandestinely with British Gas contractors from Arvato, a debt-collecting firm tasked with installing prepayment energy meters for those late on their payments, has found that contractors broke into homes to do so.
In one instance, debt agents were seen using a locksmith, during below-freezing temperatures, to break into the home of a single father with three children in order to install a prepayment energy meter, meaning that if the family failed to top up their payments, their heating would be shut off.
The Times reporter also recounted seeing agents use a court order to install a meter in the home of a mother with a four-week-old baby after her bills increased by seven hundred per cent during the energy crisis.
Under current regulations, energy firms in Britain are mandated to have attempted all other options prior to installing a prepayment meter, and even then should not take the step “in the most vulnerable situations”. The use of a prepayment meter is often more expensive than direct debit payments, exacerbating the problem for struggling homes forced to use the appliances.
The investigation found that debt-collecting contractors are incentivised to install prepayment meters in households with financial bonuses, therefore encouraging them to ignore the plight of certain customers, with single mothers representing the largest group of people impacted by the practice.
“If every single mum that starts getting a bit teary you’re going to walk away from, you won’t be earning any bonus,” an agent said.
Others were seen bragging about threatening customers with sending the police to kick down their doors if they refused to allow the contractors into their homes.
The report went on to claim that British Gas agents continued the policy of remotely switching smart energy meters to pay-as-you-go, despite parent company Centrica stating that it would halt the practice during the winter months amid the energy crisis.
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In response to the report, the chief of Centrica, Chris O’Shea, told the BBC on Thursday: “This happened when people were acting on behalf of British Gas. There is nothing that can be said to excuse it.”
“The contractor that we’ve employed, Arvato, has let us down but I am accountable for this,” he added, saying that the firm has suspended installations of energy meters.
Business Secretary Grant Shapps, who claimed that he was “horrified” by the report, said: “Switching customers — and particularly those who are vulnerable — to prepayment meters should only ever be a last resort and every other possible alternative should be exhausted… These findings suggest British Gas are doing anything but this.”
A spokesman for Ofgem, the nation’s energy regulator, said that it will begin an “urgent investigation” into British Gas following the report, and that it would not “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.”
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