EDF suspends forced installation of prepayment meters after British Gas controversy
The energy company EDF has suspended the forced installation of prepayment meters while it reviews its processes for dealing with customers who fall into arrears on their accounts.
The country's second-largest energy supplier, which has about five million customers, acted after British Gas suspended forced installations following a Times investigation that revealed debt collectors had forced their way into the homes of vulnerable customers.
EDF said it forced customers onto prepayment metres only as a "very last resort" when other avenues have been exhausted, and the company is understood to have acted out of caution following the British Gas case, rather than in response to evidence of bad practice.
The boss of British Gas's owner, Centrica, said "there is no excuse" after an investigation found the company sent debt collectors who broke into vulnerable customers' homes to install prepayment meters.
A Times investigation showed a company used by British Gas to pursue debts, Arvato Financial Solutions, forcing their way into homes to fit the devices, despite signs children and disabled people were living there.
Chris O'Shea also said that customers do not deserve to be treated in such a way, and that he would not "justify it" - adding that he is launching an independent investigation.
"I am really, really sorry," he added, talking to Sky News' business presenter, Ian King.
"We've clearly got it wrong here and we are going to fix that."
Energy companies can apply for court warrants to force installation of prepayment metres on customers that have fallen into arrears and not responded to attempts to discuss repayment.
Suppliers are required to pursue all available alternatives over a six-month period and are not permitted to force prepayment on vulnerable customers.
The prime minister's official spokesman called the reports about British Gas "deeply shocking and concerning" and confirmed the energy minister was meeting British Gas on Thursday afternoon.
"Vulnerable families should not be treated so poorly, British Gas has rightly now suspended this practice," he said, before adding: "There are circumstances in which prepayment meters are allowed but it does not appear, from reports, that this is happening in this case."
Ofgem, the energy regulator, is launching an urgent investigation into British Gas following the allegations.
"These are extremely serious allegations from The Times. We are launching an urgent investigation into British Gas and we won't hesitate to take firm enforcement action," an Ofgem spokesperson said.
How do prepayment meters work and what are the rules around them?
What you need to know about allegations prepayment meters were forced on vulnerable customers
Boss of British Gas owner says there is 'no excuse' after prepay meters forced on vulnerable people
In its statement, Centrica said it would complete a "thorough investigation" and the warranty suspension would last "until at least after winter".
Meanwhile, Arvato Financial Solutions told the Times it "acts compliantly at all times in accordance with the regulatory requirements" and the findings did not represent the company's views or its official guidance on how to interact with customers
EDF said it had applied for 13,766 court warrants to force installation last year and had proceeded in about half of those cases.
In a statement, EDF said: "EDF only seeks to move a customer to prepayment without their consent as a very last resort and only when we determine it is safe and practical. In 2022, we applied for 13,766 warrants in relation to domestic customer debt and in around half of these cases we took the decision not to proceed once the customer had engaged and we understood their circumstances.
"Throughout this process, customers can contact EDF at any point to request a change of payment method. We will be delighted to hear from them and our advisors will help.
Click to subscribe to the Sky News Daily wherever you get your podcasts
"We regularly review and update these processes and so we are confident they are fit for purpose. Nonetheless we are currently reviewing them again to reconfirm they are robust and see if we can make any improvements. We have suspended forced installation of prepayment meters while we conduct this latest review."
EDF has also called on the government to maintain energy support to households at the current rate to help those struggling with energy bills.
State support is due to be reduced in April, with typical household bills rising from £2,500 to £3,000.
"We've tried our best to support as many customers as possible this winter. We've invested millions more on customer support and hired hundreds of extra customer advisors to try to help. But the scale of the problem people are facing means that we cannot tackle this as individual suppliers alone.
"The government should cancel the reduction to EPG and keep bills at no more than £2,500."