The media and politicians are shocked to find out British Gas has been breaking into customers’ homes to install prepayment meters. Of course, if they’d bothered to listen to poor people they would have realised that energy firms have been doing this since 1954.
British Gas: corporate breaking and entering
As Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported, energy supplier British Gas has announced that it would no longer “force-fit” prepayment meters in the homes of customers who are behind on their bills. Energy companies in the UK can obtain court warrants that allow them to enter people’s homes and fit the pay-as-you-go meters. Customers are then at risk of companies cutting their gas supply off if they fail to top them up.
However, an undercover investigation by the Times newspaper looked into this. It 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”. Journalist Paul Morgan-Bentley went undercover with British Gas and exposed its practice. He noted that the company was breaking into the homes of disabled people:
Others who've had these meters force-fit for British Gas in recent weeks include a woman described in job notes as having “severe mental health bipolar”, a woman "with mobility problems and is partially sighted” and a mother whose “daughter is disabled and has a hoist”
British Gas’s parent company Centrica was clearly rattled by the story. It said on 2 February it was suspending “all warrant activity” as a result. Centrica will also launch an investigation. Politicians, meanwhile, were outraged:
Today’s news about British Gas breaking into the homes of vulnerable people to install prepayment meters is absolutely horrific.
Wider action to deal with the scandal of prepayment meters is long overdue.pic.twitter.com/nl2eLztyNI
However, energy firms breaking into people’s homes to fit prepayment meters is hardly news if you’re poor. This is because the government has let energy firms do it since 1954.
Nothing new – if you’re poor
As the website Dealing with Bailiffs wrote, energy firms like British Gas can force entry into people’s homes to either fit prepayment meters or cut them off. They can do this under:
The energy firm has to have a “Warrant of Entry” notice from a magistrate. Dealing with Bailiffs noted that this:
allows a utility company warrant officer access to gas and electricity services in a property on application to a magistrate to lawfully break entry.
It is normally used when contact with the occupants has been unsuccessful and a utility service remains unpaid. A warrant of entry is used to either disconnect services or fit a pre-payment meter to the supply.
iNews reported on this in December 2022. It found that magistrates had granted nearly 500,000 Warrants of Entry since July 2021. iNews noted then that magistrates often signed off on the warrants without even asking if the customers were vulnerable. One magistrate reportedly did a batch-signing of “496 utility warrants in just three minutes and 51 seconds”.
Woe are the middle classes
Of course, if the Times and iNews had asked poor people in the first place then they wouldn’t have needed to investigate. However, why would they? Previously, fuel poverty, which would often lead to energy firms installing prepayment meters, was mostly confined to the poorest people. As the Resolution Foundation previously predicted, the cost of living crisis would change all this – and more middle-class people would be hit by fuel poverty:
So now British Gas are raiding slightly richer people’s houses, and suddenly the corporate media are interested – and politicians like Rishi Sunak call it “deeply shocking and concerning”. What’s really concerning is that no-one was interested in how energy firms were treating poor people – until now.