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The Times

Cold Comfort


The Times’ investigation in February 2023 revealed that British Gas had “forced some of its poorest customers on to top-up systems… exposing an energy market in desperate need of reform.” This hard-hitting case from the Times showed yet again the enormous power of investigative journalism, with British Gas suspending the practice shortly after the investigation was published.

The story also revealed that British Gas had sent debt collectors to break into customers’ homes and force-fit pay-as-you-go meters, even when those customers were known to be vulnerable. The Times reported: “Locksmiths were sent to the freezing homes of single parents in arrears, pay-as-you-go meters were forced upon the sick, elderly and mentally ill despite Ofgem rules that they should not be installed in the homes of the vulnerable, and customers were billed hundreds of pounds for the cost of having their houses broken into amid a cost of living crisis.”

In March, the Times reported that the energy regulator Ofgem, had demanded the paper hand over all the material involved from their reporting on the scandal. In response, the Times said: “It should not have taken a Times investigation to expose the scandal of British Gas employing debt collectors to break into the homes of some of its most vulnerable customers and force-fit prepayment meters.

“The job of regulating Britain’s dysfunctional energy market instead falls to Ofgem. Yet the watchdog did not do enough about this abhorrent practice until shamed by this newspaper. Now, having failed to fulfil its most basic responsibility to taxpayers, it is attacking The Times rather than doing its job. It can expect to be ignored.”

The then Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Grant Shapps, also criticised Ofgem’s approach to the Times’ investigation, telling Sky News that Ofgem should “fix the problems that were uncovered and not be pursuing or threatening to pursue journalists who have uncovered these things,” adding that “the journalists are merely doing the job of uncovering something which absolutely should not be going on. I have cracked down very hard on that particular scandal to do with prepaid meters. I expect the regulator to do the same job.”

Ofgem’s decision at the time was also condemned by Index on Censorship’s chief executive, Ruth Anderson, in a letter to the newspaper.

Shortly after, Ofgem rescinded its plans to force the Times and its journalists to hand over their work. A spokesman for the regulator said: “It was never our intention to impinge potentially on freedom of expression or journalistic integrity.”

The Times continues to campaign on this issue, reporting in October 2023 that new rules failed to stop debt agents “getting warrants to force-fit prepayment meters in the homes of mothers with young children”.

"Journalists are merely doing the job of uncovering something which absolutely should not be going on."

Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Grant Shapps