British Gas requests to shut down dozens of companies over unpaid bills

Closing Businesses - Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Closing Businesses - Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

British Gas has applied to shut down dozens of its business customers this year over unpaid bills as the energy crisis leaves companies battling to meet soaring costs.

The supplier, which is owned by Centrica, has issued 37 winding-up petitions so far this year, 13 of which have led to the business being wound-up, according to analysis of court records by The Telegraph.

Rival E.ON is recorded as having issued 21 petitions over the same period, seven of which have led to the customer being liquidated. The pair are two of the largest business suppliers in the market, with British Gas the largest among small to medium-sized companies.

It marks a more aggressive approach to debt collection after the pandemic. The Government introduced restrictions on winding-up petitions during the pandemic to help businesses who were struggling to pay off debts when the country was subject to strict lockdowns, while some companies put in place their own moratoriums.

The lifting of those restrictions this year has coincided with a surge in wholesale energy prices, pushing many businesses into difficulty and forcing the Government to step in last week with support.

Both British Gas and E.ON insist their debt collection practices are fair and winding-up petitions are rarely used. The serious and costly move involves a creditor applying to the court to close down the company so it can be repaid from its assets.

In one case, a company that provided management services to bars suffered a slump in revenue after the venues were handed back to landlords amid restrictions on capacity due to the pandemic. Other cases involve a pub company and social club. All were small businesses.

The Government stepped in last month with vast subsidies to help businesses pay their energy bills. The current universal support is set to last until April when it will be more targeted, potentially leaving some businesses exposed.

Mazars, the advisory firm, argues that energy providers find it relatively easy to replace business customers who have gone insolvent, and thus have traditionally been unforgiving of debts. The minimum debt threshold for an insolvency petition is £750, it adds.

A spokesman for British Gas said: “Our debt policy is fair with robust controls in place. We seek to engage early with business customers to discuss the support and options available and are able to offer extended payment plans where appropriate.

“We do not treat winding up petitions lightly and only consider them in specific circumstances where there is clear liability, the company has a sizable balance and appears to be soluble with a healthy asset position.

“Winding up petitions account for less than 1pc of our aged debt. We recognise that the current economic climate is difficult for smaller businesses which is why we have committed to a £15m small business debt relief package for those struggling this winter.”

An E.ON spokesman said: “A winding up petition is always a last resort following an extended period of engagement with a business customer and only applicable in specific situations where the business has proven affordability.

“It is a rare event and the number of petitions represents a small fraction of our hundreds of thousands of business customers around the country. Our advice for any customer struggling to meet payments is to contact us so we can provide them with the appropriate support we have available.

“When a payment becomes overdue, we will engage the customer to help them arrange payment plans and connect them with third party support, such as the Money Advice Trust, when customers face hardship or struggle to meet payments.”