Martin Lewis gives voucher advice to those on prepayment meters
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An undercover investigation has revealed ruthless tactics deployed by British Gas to force-fit pre-payment meters. The energy giant has now pledged to suspend “all warrant activity until at least after winter” as it launches its own internal probe on the situation. The lid was lifted on a third-party company, Arvato, used by British Gas to pursue debts when a reporter went under the radar to work for them. They saw first-hand how prepayment meters are fitted in the homes of the most vulnerable members of society.
The probe was conducted by The Times, which saw a reporter accompany staff on visits tp the homes of people struggling to pay their energy bills. These meters are installed for residents to keep track of their spending in a bid to stop them falling into more debt.
But campaigners against them say they do more harm than good – with some disconnecting entirely, leaving the elderly, and those in the middle of crippling fuel poverty to sit in cold and dark homes.
Among the shocking revelations, the reporter is said to have seen a locksmith aid a break-in to the home of a single father of three. British Gas owner Centirca has since responded. Centrica CEO Chris O’Shea said: “Protecting vulnerable customers is an absolute priority and we have clear processes and policies to ensure we manage customer debt carefully and safely. The allegations around our third-party contractor Arvato [Financial Solutions] are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant activity.”
He later told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The contractor that we’ve employed, Arvato, has let us down but I am accountable for this. This happened when people were acting on behalf of British Gas. There is nothing that can be said to excuse it.”
Now, fury has erupted at the “truly shocking” tactics used by the energy provider. Business Secretary Grant Shapps said he is “horrified” by the situation and said he has asked Energy Minister Graham Stuart to hold a meeting with the company in the “coming days”.
Mr Shapps 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.”
Figures from the Warm This Winter campaign has previously found that two-thirds of prepayment meter customers are vulnerable. It warned that what has been exposed is just “the tip of the iceberg”.
Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition said: “Ministers have fallen for the energy industry’s spin that they don’t use court warrants to install pre-payment meters on vulnerable customers. The investigation reveals this not to be the case
“It is time that the Government stood up to energy firms and banned the forced installation of pre-payment meters and the forced switching of smart meters to pre-payment mode. We also now need a formal inquiry into the pre-payment meters scandal and the role of the courts in enabling this practice.”
Gillian Cooper, Head of Energy Policy at Citizens Advice, said: “It’s truly shocking to see the extent of bad practices amongst some energy suppliers. Our frontline advisers know only too well the desperate situations so many struggling customers have found themselves in. Time and time again we have called for a ban on forced prepayment meter installations until new protections for customers are brought in.
“Ofgem and the Government need to act now – serious reforms must be made before these suppliers can be trusted again.”
Prepayment meters need to be topped up with credit on a pay-as-you-go basis, meaning that the energy does not flow without sufficient credit on a customer’s account. In 2022, Citizens Advice saw more people unable to afford to top up their prepayment meter than for the entirety of the previous 10 years combined.
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According to Ofgem rules, energy suppliers must have effective checks and balances in place when switching the mode of a smart meter. Customers with concerns are advised to speak to their supplier.
Under Ofgem rules, suppliers must offer payment plans that you can afford. And you can ask for emergency credit if you use a prepay meter and can’t top up.
Arvato Financial Solutions told the Times it “acts compliantly at all times in accordance with the regulatory requirements”. It claimed the findings did not represent the company’s views or its official guidance on how to interact with customers.
A spokesman said: “If there has been any verbal or any other type of misconduct by individual employees, we deeply regret it.”
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