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Pre-Payment Misery

Kaitlin Dryburgh

In the past week we’ve seen what some of the biggest energy companies have been raking in as their energy prices continue to spread misery among millions. BP have announced that they’ve increased their profits to $27.7 billion, while also stating that they’ll have no option but to roll back their targets for reducing oil and gas production by 2030 from 35-40% to 20-30%. Then there’s Shell, which posted profits of upwards to $40 billion, more than some countries’ GDP and their highest profit in 115 years, yet we’re being led to believe that more windfall tax wouldn’t work. It seems that these international powerhouses are untouchable, monstrosities of capitalism that like children in a sweet shop run rampant taking all that they can.

Their ability to make those huge profits is in juxtaposition to what’s been happening here for months and possibly came to a head this week. Fuel poverty in Scotland and the rest of the UK is devastatingly high, with 40% of Scots officially dropping into the Fuel Poverty category meaning that for many of the most vulnerable in society in order to get some heat into their homes or cook some food they may very well go into debt with their energy company, or perhaps manage to just scrape by every week.

The past month we’ve been hearing that hundreds of thousands of people have been been pressured into switching their smart meters to pre-payment meters even though they don’t need them. Yet this week it’s come to light that quite often these were carried out with no consent from the customer.

An undercover investigation by the Times found that debt collectors for British Gas have been forcing their way into people’s homes to fit these pre-payment meters. One of their journalists went undercover with the third-party debt collectors British Gas use, as they broke into the house of a single father of three to fit one of the meters. Of course it wasn’t long before other people came forward with their stories, and it wasn’t just British Gas who were falling back to these dirty tactics. People waking up in the middle of the night terrified, thinking they were being burgled to find men standing in their kitchen fitting a meter, while a women spoke of her elderly mum going into hospital with a broken hip and coming home to a pre-payment meter all because she fell slightly into debt while in hospital. In the case of this women and so many other elderly people they are not mobile enough to go to their local shop to top up their meter and don’t feel confident enough to do it online. Do the energy companies care? Do they heck!

I myself experienced something similar, yet thankfully was able sort out the situation before it came to having a pre-payment meter fitted. Back in 2020-2021 I was bombarded with someone else’s mail from an energy company for about a year. It turned out that this person owed a substantial amount of money. After getting letters from debt collectors, I then starting receiving visits from debt collectors who weren’t exactly the friendliest. My last visit from them felt very threatening as I was told they would be forcefully entering my property and fitting a new meter. Thankfully after another lengthy phone call with a surprisingly friendly person it was finally sorted. I couldn’t imagine how that would have felt if I had owed that money and on top of that had people depending on me for food on the table in a warm house.

Pre-payment meters should be the absolute last resort and in cases concerning vulnerable people not an option at all, but above all, this demeaning practice of forcibly fitting one without consent should never take place. In the revelations this week British Gas have tried to distance themselves from this, as much as they can and after a helpful nudge from Ofgem, the threat of forced pre-payment metres has been paused, for now anyway.

However, it’s hard to feel that Ofgem is really a Spokesperson for the people when the boss is decreeing in front of MPs that there is a problem with people deciding to just not pay their bills, and go into debt on purpose through pure laziness. Which in the grand scheme of things is not helpful, considering we now have one in four households spending over a tenth of their combined incomes on energy costs, and personal debt in the UK rising by a third.

The inhumanity is that not only will people struggle to pay their bills, but not being able to heat their homes or use the oven at the end of the day to cook. For a child to be cold at home means doing their homework might be a struggle. On top of that companies think they are entitled to break into people’s homes, enter their personal space, as if nothing they have is theirs anymore. Is this not what loan sharks do, not an apparently above the board company that needs to stick to regulations while also being overseen by regulators. Where is the humanity, the decency to help people especially at a time like this?

Although how can you ever except a private company to put people above profits? At the end of the day they have their bottom line to worry about. If only Scotland had been smarter in their approach to a National Energy Company, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

However, you can’t help but wonder who is enabling this? We are well aware that the Government is just standing there while the energy companies run circles round them, while they hand out measly payments. Ofgem are supposed to be an independent regulator that stops this behaviour, so why are they not doing their jobs? This Wednesday Gordon Brown asked the same thing and that the Ofgem boss should quit after “creating booming business” for loan sharks.

From what we’ve seen from the likes of Trickle Down Truss and Richie Rishi, this isn’t surprising in the slightest. But to add salt to the wound it would seem that the justice system has also been giving this behaviour the green light. The courts have, for a lot of the time, been allowing these warrants to be processed unchallenged, in Scotland 32,000 of these warrants were applied for by energy companies in 2022 alone. As the enablers, they too have had to stop and assess, with the top judge in England and Wales stating that there needs to be a review of the process in which these warrants are granted, as it seems hundreds may have been waived through simultaneously with no scrutiny applied. Now the Scottish Court and Tribunals Service also will begin to do the same thing. This comes after a Justice of the Peace decided to leave his position as he felt he was unable to check if the most vulnerable are being safeguarded while doing his work. Robin Cantrill-Fenwick told BBC that before he was able to ask those applying for the warrant questions that would allow him to make a well measured judgement, such as are there children at the property or a clinically vulnerable person, and could easily refuse a warrant. However, now with changes in the process to warrant applications these can be done vie the phone and often are with just presenting a long list of addresses. Not surprisingly the amount of warrant refused plunged, in England and Wales (Scotland lacks this data) this went from 1,824 refusals in 2019 to just 56 in 2022, which means 0.01% of 367,140 were refused, a pitiful statistic.

So who’s going to step in and put a stop to this monstrosity of a situation, where companies can charge astronomical prices, make astronomical profits, then without scrutiny from Ofgem or the courts rely on such a demeaning practice that often plunges people into more debt. It would be great to say that people don’t rely on their heating too much as everyone’s houses are well insulated and cosy, but our millions of draughty homes say otherwise. The whole system is British Gas and pals dream come true, they must be laughing.

As the fuel payments for those living off grid should be finding their way to people this week, I’m reminded of the quote, “we don’t want change, we need change”. A change in the form of a National Energy company that would protect customers from price influxes and would stop the reliance on fossil fuels. Regulators that step in to make sure all business processes (regardless of the business area) are fair and don’t harm customers and not to mention a justice system that is provided with all the facts and is not used by for profit businesses as a second arm of their offices to rack up more debt and more profits

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