LONDON -- The U.K. government said Thursday it was responding to “deeply shocking” revelations that debt-collectors working for British Gas broke into customers' homes to install prepay gas meters that left vulnerable people at risk of having their heating cut off.
British Gas' parent company, Centrica PLC, said it had halted the “unacceptable” practice. The country's energy regulator launched an investigation.
The Times of London reported that debt collectors obtained court warrants to enter the homes of people who had fallen behind on their energy bills. They installed meters that make customers pay upfront for their gas supply — if they don’t, they are cut off. The practice allows firms to get around rules that limit the circumstances in which they can cut off supplies to customers who are in debt.
The newspaper said an undercover reporter working for debt collection agency Arvato Financial Solutions accompanied agents to enter homes and “force fit” the meters. The newspaper said the customers included a single father with three young children whose door was forced open by a locksmith and a mother with a 4-week-old baby.
The Times said that in the first 11 months of 2022, energy firms applied for 345,000 warrants to force entry into U.K. homes.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's spokesman, Max Blain, called the report “deeply shocking and concerning.”
"Vulnerable families should not be treated so poorly,” he said. Energy Minister Graham Stuart summoned British Gas representatives for a meeting on Thursday, the government said.
Britain’s energy regulator, Ofgem, said it was investigating what it called “extremely serious allegations.”
Centrica CEO Chris O’Shea said that “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 are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant activity,” he said.
Arvato Financial Solutions said it “acts compliantly at all times in accordance with the regulatory requirements in the areas in which we are operationally active.”
“We treat customers with whom we come into contact with respect and assess their individual needs at the time of our visit,” the company said in a statement. “If there has been any verbal or any other type of misconduct by individual employees, we deeply regret it.”
Simon Francis, coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said that the report showed the need for “a formal inquiry into the prepayment meters scandal and the role of the courts in enabling this practice.”
Domestic energy bills in Britain skyrocketed after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago, and resulting Western sanctions on Moscow sent global oil and gas prices soaring. Wholesale gas prices have since fallen back, but critics say energy firms aren’t passing the benefit on to customers.
Shell reported Thursday that its annual profits doubled to a record high of $39.9 billion last year.
The U.K. government has given households at least 400 pounds ($500) off their energy bills for six months, but the support is due to be scaled back in April.