The UK’s energy regulator, Ofgem, has announced a comprehensive, independent, and wide-ranging review into British Gas after subcontractors were found to be breaking into homes to fit prepayment meters. According to a report by The Times of London, some British Gas customers—including those who are disabled or mentally ill—had pay-as-you-go meters forcibly installed in their homes. Following the report, energy minister Graham Stuart asked the energy giant to urgently outline “redress” for “mistreated customers,” while Secretary of State for Energy Security Grant Shapps described the forced pre-pay installations as “outrageous.” Ofgem subsequently ordered all energy providers to suspend prepayment meter installations until a review is completed.
On Tuesday, the regulator set out its next steps in both the British Gas and wider prepayment meter review “to support and protect energy customers when suppliers fit prepayment meters by force or via remote switch.” Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley told the BBC: “Clearly something has gone wrong in British Gas and what we’re announcing today is a comprehensive, independent, wide-ranging review into what has happened there.”
Suppliers are allowed to apply to courts for a warrant to enter the home of a customer who has not been paying their bills and has not engaged with their supplier. In a statement, Brearley emphasised that “the rules and regulations are clear” that force-fitting prepayment meters “should only be done as a last resort and only where it is safe and practicable to do so.” He said: “We expect suppliers to treat customers with compassion and professionalism and those executing a warrant should take into account what they find when they visit a home and pause the installation if they see a safety risk. Where this hasn’t happened, we will hold suppliers to account.”
The investigation into British Gas will examine whether the firm had taken all steps required under its licence to help domestic customers with debt before installing a prepayment meter or disconnecting them. It will also look at whether British Gas and anyone working for the supplier assessed if a customer’s “mental capacity and/or psychological state is such that installation of a prepayment meter would be severely traumatic to a customer and make their condition significantly worse.” Further, it will investigate if those working on fitting meters for British Gas had the necessary skills—including the ability to assess the mental capacity and psychological state of the customer on the doorstep—and were “fit and proper” to enter customers’ homes.
A British Gas spokesman said: “The allegations around our third-party contractor Arvato are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant activity. We are conducting our own in-depth investigation to understand exactly what’s happened and where we find things have gone wrong, we will put them right. We will also be fully cooperating with Ofgem on their investigation. We only install pre-payment meters under warrant as a last resort after all other options have been exhausted. This takes many months where there are multiple efforts to engage with a customer and the majority of the time, we can find a solution such as access to our support funds or payment plans—we’ve helped over 650,000 customers with their energy bills in the past year.”
Ofgem also launched a separate probe into the force-fitting of prepayment meters across all energy suppliers to assess whether these were isolated cases. Brearley called on all suppliers to review all of their recent prepayment installations, and consider if any need to be reversed and compensation offered where the rules have not been followed. He said: “To be clear, if we find those rules haven’t been followed those companies will be forced to make redress and that’s highly likely to mean they will have to put that meter right, they will have to pay compensation, and if it’s systematic there will be fines for those companies.”
The industry body Energy UK said in response to Ofgem’s announcement: “Suppliers have already paused prepayment installations by warrant in order to carry out reviews of their own practices and they will look to put things right if they find cases where prepayment meters have been installed inappropriately.” But the organisation also pointed to the reason why energy providers have been using prepayment meters, which have attracted criticisms and widespread condemnation since the recent row. If users who consistently fail to pay are not moved to prepayment meters, the unpaid debts would result in higher energy bills for other customers. Energy UK was quoted by the BBC as saying: “The industry has already been talking to Ofgem and the government about how best we can support the most vulnerable customers going forward, including the role a social tariff could potentially play, which needs to be part of the discussion around the use of prepayment meters.”
Patricia Devlin, Lily Zhou, and PA Media contributed to this report.