UK power supplier Centrica has apologised for the “deeply disturbing” behaviour of a third-party contractor alleged to have broken into vulnerable customers’ homes to install pre-pay energy meters on its behalf, and suspended the controversial practice of forced instalments.
Chief executive Chris O’Shea said the owner of British Gas had immediately suspended work with Arvato after an undercover reporter from The Times witnessed the contractor’s agents breaking into the home of a single father of three young children to fit a pre-payment meter.
The investigation, which also unearthed other evidence of forced instalments in the homes of highly vulnerable customers, has shone a further spotlight on the controversial practice of fitting pre-pay meters under court warrants.
Citizens Advice, the consumer charity, has called for an immediate ban on the forced installations of such meters by all energy companies until new customer protections are introduced.
Most customers pay for their energy after it has been used, commonly by direct debit, but consumer groups have detected a rise in suppliers forcing households on to more expensive pre-payment meters if they fall into arrears.
Ofgem is investigating the practice, while business secretary Grant Shapps warned suppliers last month that forced instalments should only be a “last resort”.
Shapps has summoned Centrica for a meeting with energy minister Graham Stuart following the publication of The Times’ investigation. Ofgem said it was launching an urgent investigation into Centrica following the “extremely serious” allegations and would not hesitate to take “firm enforcement action” against the company.
Centrica said it had suspended forced installation until “at least” the end of the winter.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, O’Shea called the practices unearthed by the investigation “completely unacceptable” and “deeply disturbing”, adding that “there’s nothing that can be said to excuse” the actions reported The Times.
Centrica had commissioned an independent report so it could get to the “bottom of what went wrong”, O’Shea said. The third-party contractor had “let us down”, O’Shea said, but he conceded that he was ultimately accountable.
“There’s nothing I can say that can express the horror I had when I saw this,” O’Shea said.
Gillian Cooper, head of energy policy at Citizens Advice, said it was “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,” she added. “Time and time again we have called for a ban on forced pre-payment meter installations until new protections for customers are brought in.”
The investigation comes ahead of Centrica’s full-year results this month when it is expected to report a near-eightfold rise in earnings. Its gas production, energy trading and nuclear power divisions have benefited from soaring commodity prices in the wake of Russia’s assault on Ukraine.
Arvato Financial Solutions said it acted “compliantly at all times in accordance with the regulatory requirements in the areas in which we are operationally active. In doing so, we respect and adhere to the regulations of Ofgem as well as other regulatory bodies.”
But it added: “If there has been any verbal or any other type of misconduct by individual employees, we deeply regret it.”