14 March 2023

Ex-magistrate ‘saw 100 applications at a time to force-fit prepayment meters’

14 March 2023

A former magistrate has told MPs he was dealing with a spreadsheet of between 50 and 100 applications at a time for energy companies to force-fit prepayment meters in people’s homes.

The forced installation of expensive pre-payment meters in the homes of energy customers – and how this was allowed to happen – is being investigated by cross-party MPs in a joint Justice and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.

An investigation by The Times revealed how vulnerable customers – including disabled and mentally ill people – were being forced by British Gas on to the pay-as-you-go meters, or have their gas switched off.

Robin Cantrill-Fenwick told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the Justice Committee: “In 2017, Ofgem published some statutory consultation outcomes in which they said that warrants were being used too readily, there were less invasive alternatives, they were concerned about failures to identify vulnerable customers, that some vulnerable customers were going through traumatic experiences and some companies were applying excessively high charges.

“I think it’s important to understand that, because in 2019, despite all of those concerns, the process was changed such that the field was tilted even further in favour of the energy companies.

“We were required to take on, as magistrates, an almost entirely performative and uncritical role applying and approving these warrant applications in bulk. Much less judicial discretion in the current process.

“It’s a bulk process – rather than having individual warrants in front of us, there would be a spreadsheet. That spreadsheet would contain many more applications in a list – I now know that some of the courthouses are dealing with up to 1,000 – it was my experience that I was dealing with 50 to 100.

“The occupants don’t know when, where, what time the application is being dealt with, and there is much, much less information on the spreadsheet.”

The hearing was told that, between July 2021 and December 2022, magistrates granted a “staggering” 536,139 warrants that had been applied for by energy suppliers, and refused just 75.

Firms have been subsequently banned from installing prepayment energy meters under warrant, but that moratorium is due to expire at the end of March.

The boss of British Gas owner Centrica told the hearing that the company found no problems with the way its subcontractor Arvato Financial Solutions behaved during a review just weeks before The Times published its expose.

Chief executive Chris O’Shea said: “One of the things that I was most disappointed about – and the reason I was very upset with the media reports – was that we had actually had an internal audit team with Arvato weeks before those reports and had identified no issues.

“The installation of prepayment meters under warrant was not something that came to my attention as a result of the media reports.

“The allegations that there was improper behaviour is what came to my attention through media reports.

“What we immediately did upon that was to suspend work with Arvato and to launch an investigation to establish the facts to understand whether the instances we saw reported were isolated or systemic. That report is ongoing now.”

Mr O’Shea later said hundreds of customers had written to the company in recent weeks to complain that a prepayment meter might have been incorrectly force-fitted in their homes.

“Since The Times report, we’ve had around 300 customers that have written to us to say that they feel they’ve been moved incorrectly,” he told MPs.

“We’re looking into every one of those cases. If that’s the case, then we will reverse it, we will make it right.”

Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley told the hearing that energy suppliers will not restart the practice of force-fitting prepayment meters at the end of this month when the current hiatus ends.

He said: “We are working with the industry and consumer groups on a new code of practice, and we expect that to be in place – with broad support – by the end of March.

“But I need to be clear with this committee: Our priority is making sure this industry gets its act in order.

“Therefore they will not be restarting forced installation of prepayment meters at the end of March, and only when and if they can establish they’re acting in accordance with that new code of practice.

“We are deeply concerned about this. We have investigations and compliance reviews ongoing but my message to Chris (O’Shea, the boss of Centrica) and to all of the industry is you need to fix things now, you don’t need to wait for our reviews to conclude.”

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