British Gas vows to halt remote switches of customers to prepayment meters

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British Gas has said its customers will not be remotely switched to prepayment meters this winter and pledged £10m to support them – but will not stop the controversial forced installation of the meters.

Britain’s largest energy supplier has committed £10m in help for vulnerable customers on prepay arrangements and promised not to switch customers remotely this winter unless they ask, the Guardian can disclose.

Households are increasingly being switched from monthly bills to pay-as-you-go tariffs through their smart meters, without energy suppliers needing to enter their homes to fit a meter.

British Gas has now said that would not happen to its customers and it would introduce extra checks to find out if customers were vulnerable and needing support to prevent them being cut off from energy supplies.

However, it did not commit to halting the forced installation of prepayment meters in person. Energy firms say this tactic is a last resort and a method of preventing large amounts of debt from being built up.

The company’s prepayment customers will receive up to £250 of “non-repayable” credit if they are struggling. British Gas said it would identify those who would most benefit and there was no need for customers to apply.

It will also encourage customers using older “dumb” meters to move on to smart prepayment meters, meaning problems can be identified and support provided more quickly.

In a landmark report released last week, Citizens Advice said that 3.2 million people – one person every 10 seconds – were last year being left in cold and dark homes as they ran out of credit.

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The Labour party has called for a ban on the forced installation of prepayment meters after it emerged that magistrates were signing off hundreds of entry warrants in minutes to allow suppliers access to people’s homes to fit meters, raising concerns over whether individual cases are being properly scrutinised.

Chris O’Shea, chief executive of the British Gas owner Centrica, said: “We know that some prepayment customers are self-disconnecting and not coming forward for help, so we have reviewed our policies to do more to target support at this group. As a responsible business we are doing all we can to support our customers during this crisis – our work with the British Gas Energy Trust provides grants and money advice services.”

Last year, British Gas allocated £50m to support customers during the energy crisis and said it would donate 10% of its energy supply profits to a dedicated fund.

The £10m support for prepayment customers will come from a larger £25m fund to support vulnerable customers. Separately, the British Gas Energy Trust provides grants, energy efficiency measures, fuel vouchers and advice to all energy consumers.

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O’Shea said its call centres were helping about a million energy customers a month.

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Oil and gas producers have been criticised for making large profits during the energy crisis, as soaring wholesale gas prices boosted earnings. Centrica last week said it expected a near eightfold increase in its earnings this year.

On Tuesday, the SNP MP Anne McLaughlin urged the government to ensure pre-payment customers did not pay more for their energy supply than standard credit and direct debit customers.

Some suppliers, including ScottishPower, have stopped clawing back debts from customers through prepayment meters.

Ovo, Utilita and Shell paused forced installations by warrant over Christmas. EDF continues to install meters but said it carried out an “in-person welfare check” before changing a meter, and that installing a “legacy prepay meter” was a “last resort”. Octopus Energy, which has 3.5 million customers, said it had switched 200 customers in its history, with just 12 completed by court warrant.

Utility Warehouse said prepayment comprised a “small percentage” of its customer base and it only installed through a court warrant “in rare cases and where it’s a last resort”.

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