“There was evidence of a Times exposé showing debt collectors gleefully breaking into the homes of vulnerable people to install meters on behalf of British Gas.”
By Jack Sargeant MS
Last month I wrote about the developing prepay meter scandal and I want to return to this subject. The scale of what has happened continues to emerge and for the last two weeks I have asked urgent questions in the Senedd.
To remind you all, the number of court orders to allow debt collection agents to forcibly install prepay meters on behalf of suppliers exploded last year. Suppliers are supposed to ensure nobody living in a household they switch is vulnerable such as young children, or adults living with physical or mental health problems, or a disability.
Late last year campaigning journalist Dean Kirby of the i newspaper wrote of his experience of a court hearing where nearly 500 warrants were agreed in one go with no checks or even names read out. All there was, was the word of the debt collection agent that no vulnerable people were included.
It was at this time that I began to call for a complete ban on forced installations and it should certainly have been obvious to the government and the regulator, OFGEM, that something was going very wrong. In fact, I wrote to Grant Schapps asking him to introduce a ban at this time and his response was essentially, ‘nothing to see here’.
We have learnt so much in the last fortnight. We now know that the guidance given to magistrate’s courts changed to make it easier to pass warrants without checks on an almost industrial scale. That debt collectors were using a small number of courts to pass hundreds of warrants at a time via spreadsheet and most chillingly there was the evidence of a Times exposé showing debt collectors gleefully breaking into the homes of vulnerable people to install meters on behalf of British Gas.
The Government, the companies and OFGEM have completely failed in a way that has put thousands of lives at risk.
If we cannot trust them to do the right thing, we must look for alternatives to immediately protect vulnerable residents. The courts have placed a moratorium on any warrants. We now need a ban on people being switched remotely through smart meters, households who have already been switched to be given the option to immediately switch back free of charge and compensation to be paid.
I think however we need to go a step further. In the late 1990s legislation was introduced to make it unlawful to cut anyone household off from water supply. I believe we should look at doing the same for energy.