We now live in a time when energy firms talk like celebrities who’ve just lamped someone at the Oscars, or been covertly filmed making racist remarks. On being confronted with the fact that debt collectors in its pay are breaking into the homes of vulnerable customers to forcibly install prepayment meters, British Gas yesterday summoned the full force of theatrical contrition to wail: “This is not who we are.”
You’ll note that statement conforms to the ironclad rule of the this-is-not-who-I-am apology, in that its precise opposite is true. This is, demonstrably, precisely who British Gas are, given that this is what they do. “It’s not how we do business,” explained the firm, faced with an overwhelming stack of evidence that this is indeed how they do business.
As one debt collector trainer cheerily enlightened a new recruit during the Times investigation into the practice: “That person could tell you that their entire family of 50 were in a horrific aeroplane crash and were the sole survivor, and we’d still be saying: that’s a shame, but we are changing your meter.” The bailiff workforce seems to have absorbed this central ethical message. “If every single mum that starts getting a bit teary you’re going to walk away from,” reasoned one, “you won’t be earning any bonus.” How can it not be the way you do business, if doing it is literally incentivised?
Admittedly, it’s not how British Gas present the way they do business to the outside world. The firm’s website and social channels confront users with a perky message: “We’re tooled up to help bring bills down.” For whatever reason, they omit to mention that the tools are a mortise pick, a mass-issued warrant, and a guy who prefaced setting a locksmith on the door of a single father-of-three by telling the undercover reporter: “I love this bit.” (Whether this man is the biggest tool in the British Gas shed is a matter of debate. I imagine the field is hotly contested.)
The chief executive of the energy regulator, Ofgem, yesterday condemned the practice of forcibly entering people’s homes and switching them to prepayment. He also opened an investigation into British Gas, warning: “No energy CEO can shirk their legal and moral responsibilities to protect their own customers, especially the most vulnerable.”
And yet they can, as everyone from charities to Citizens Advice to a select committee inquiry has been highlighting for a long time now. Perhaps in their submissions to this inquiry, British Gas-contracted bailiffs will claim they are in fact engaged in divinely appointed “moral” work, much in the same way a serial killer argues they are simply cleansing the streets of sex workers once they’ve used them. Surprisingly, that’s not currently the line the firm is going with. If warm words could heat homes, British Gas could do itself out of business.
As for who else is looking busy, the business and energy secretary, Grant Shapps, last week wrote a letter to energy companies ordering them to stop the practice. Ironically, for firms that deplore their own demands being ignored, they seem not to have opened it. Maybe companies that decline to engage with the secretary of state’s envelopes could be forced to prepay their taxes? British Gas expects to increase its earnings eightfold this year.
Naturally, those unopened ministerial demands are not the only irony in town. Yesterday, Shell reported global profits of $40bn (£32.2bn), the highest in its 115-year history. The announcement served as a reminder that our government’s longtime refusal to consider extending the windfall tax was opposed, among others, by Shell itself. Last October the firm’s then chief executive Ben van Beurden told the Energy Intelligence Forum that governments needed to tax firms such as his to protect the poorest. “You cannot have a market that behaves in such a way … that is going to damage a significant part of society … I think we just have to accept as a society – it can be done smartly and not so smartly. There is a discussion to be had about it, but I think it’s inevitable.” The then chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, finally took not-especially-smart action in the autumn statement; the government always being the last to know.
Before we conclude, it must be said that British Gas is far from the only firm forcibly fitting prepayment meters, often while people are out at work, and shockingly often in the case of disabled customers who rely on electrically operated equipment to manage their lives. Many firms are driving these already vulnerable people on to prepayment meters, where the rate is disgracefully and unjustifiably higher. This is simply inhumane. The fact that it has continued despite the resultant anguish being highlighted is a sign that something much bigger than the bond between a company and an individual customer is broken.
This week the US president, Joe Biden, called for a “junk fee” prevention act, reasoning: “You shouldn’t have to pay an extra $50 to sit next to your child on the plane, pay a surprise ‘resort fee’ for a hotel stay, pay $200 to terminate your cable plan, or pay huge service fees to buy concert tickets”.
I know it involves taking a vague interest in how people actually live, but you’d think it was even more of a priority for someone in our own government to say that poor people really, really shouldn’t have to pay more for electricity via prepayment meters. If they can’t even get a grip on that part of the problem, let alone the iceberg it’s the tip of, then mounting evidence suggests it might be time for a number of parties in this story to concede: “This actually is who we are.”
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist