British Gas halts forced pre-payment policy over vulnerable people reports

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LONDON, Feb 2 (Reuters) -British Gas said it will temporarily stop using court orders that permit the forced installation of pre-payment meters in people's homes after a damning report in The Times newspaper said the practise was being used against vulnerable people.

The court warrants obtained by British Gas can be used by a contractor to break into the homes of customers who have fallen behind on their bills to install pre-payment meters, meaning they could have their heating cut off if they did not pay.

Some of the customers being affected were vulnerable people, the Times said, citing instances of a mother with a four week-old baby, a woman with mental health problems and a woman with a disabled daughter.

Britain's business minister Grant Shapps said he was "horrified" by the report and the government would hold meetings with the firm's parent company Centrica CNA.L to investigate what he called a "systemic failure".

Centrica said in a statement that it would suspend the installation of pre-payment meters by court warrant until the end of winter following the report.

It said it was investigating the Times's findings, blaming a contractor and calling the allegations against it "unacceptable".

Energy prices in Britain have rocketed this winter and despite a government package of help some people are still unable to afford their bills.

Centrica's chief executive Chris O'Shea said protecting vulnerable customers was a priority, but the government and the industry needed to address the problem of high energy bills.

"We need to strike a balance between managing spiralling bad debt and being aware that there are those who refuse to pay and those who cannot pay," he said.

"We think government, industry and the regulator need to come together to agree a long-term plan to address this and ultimately create an energy market that is sustainable."

Reporting by Sarah Young; editing by Michael Holden


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