(MENAFN- The Peninsula) AFP
London: The UK's energy minister on Thursday described as 'outrageous' the practice of forcibly entering homes to 'force-fit' prepayment meters for customers behind on their bills and called on all firms to stop it.
Grant Shapps' comments came after British Gas said it would suspend the forced installation of the meters following criticism that it was targeting vulnerable people.
Energy companies in the UK can obtain court warrants that allow them to enter homes and install the pay-as-you-go meters, with customers at risk of having their gas supply cut off if they fail to top them up.
An undercover investigation by The Times newspaper found that contractors working for British Gas sent debt collectors to 'break into' homes and 'force-fit' meters.
Some of the customers the report identified had 'extreme vulnerabilities', including a single father with three young children, and a mother with a four-week-old baby.
Following the report, Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, said it was suspending 'all warrant activity' as a result, and would launch an investigation.
'Protecting vulnerable customers is an absolute priority and we have clear processes and policies to ensure we manage customer debt carefully and safely,' said Centrica's chief executive Chris O'Shea.
'The allegations around our third-party contractor Arvato are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant activity,' he added.
'I am extremely disappointed that this has occurred. As a result, on Wednesday morning, we took a further decision to suspend all our prepayment warrant activity at least until the end of the winter.'
EDF said it had also suspended forced installation of prepayment meters while it reviewed its processes.
A spokesman said it applied for 13,766 warrants over domestic customer debt last year, and 'in around half of these cases we took the decision not to proceed once the customer had engaged and we understood their circumstances'.
'We have suspended forced installation of prepayment meters while we conduct this latest review,' it said.
The UK is battling a cost-of-living crisis as soaring energy prices push inflation to decades-high rates of over 10 percent.
'EDF have now confirmed they have suspended the outrageous practice of forced installation of prepayment meters following the investigation into British Gas,' Shapps wrote on Twitter.
'I am now calling on all the other energy companies to confirm they are following suit.'
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's spokesman called the revelations in the Times' report 'deeply shocking and concerning'.
British Gas had failed 'to provide all the support that families are entitled to,' he added, saying that Shapps would meet with the supplier later Thursday.
Energy regulator Ofgem has also announced it will investigate the findings in The Times, which it called 'extremely serious allegations'.
'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,' a spokesperson said.
The Ofgem website says that suppliers cannot fit meters under warrant for people in 'very vulnerable situations' or 'people who would find the experience very traumatic'.