‘British Gas broke into our new home while we were away and changed the locks’
After 13 years living in Canada, Neil Farley and his wife Ceri Williams were finally ready to return home to Britain – and in September last year, they completed the purchase of a house in the Yorkshire seaside resort of Hornsea.
In the months that followed, the couple set about making preparations for their move, enlisting the help of their nephew to renovate the property.
But then, at the start of the year, the family made a startling discovery: someone had broken in and changed the locks. Even more alarmingly, the intruder was British Gas.
Attached to the door was a note from the energy company and debt collection agency Avarto explaining that the provider had forced entry and installed a prepayment meter, owing to unpaid bills.
It left the number of a local locksmith and said proof of identity and residency would be required to regain entry.
But the couple had yet to even move in.
A dumbfounded Mr Farley, 61, said: “It all came as a really big shock – to be locked out of our own home even from this far away.
“It’s amazing we’ve been locked out of a house before we’ve even moved in – that’s the irony that hits home every time we think about it.”
In correspondence seen by The Telegraph, it emerged British Gas had been granted a warrant by the court to break into the property in pursuit of a debt owed by a previous occupier.
Mr Farley and Ms Williams, 55, said they had tried to set up an account with British Gas immediately after purchasing the house but struggled to get through to a representative.
He said: “This warrant is apparently in the name of someone we’ve never met.
“We’d like to think we don’t have any debts. The whole thing seems to be some sort of historic malfunction.”
British Gas later admitted it had installed the warrant in error, claiming that Mr Farley’s purchase of the house had not shown up on the provider’s records.
A spokesman said: “We would like to apologise to Mr Farley for this mistake and assure him that this will be fixed and his meter will be switched back to a credit meter. We have also credited his account with £932 in compensation for the distress this has caused.”
It comes just a week after the company was criticised for allegedly breaking into customers’ homes and force-fitting pay-as-you-go meters – even when customers are known to have “extreme vulnerabilities”.
The allegations prompted Ofgem, the energy regulator, to launch an investigation into the provider, while three of Britain’s biggest providers, including British Gas, have halted the practice of forced installation of pre-payment meters.
Energy companies can obtain court warrants which give them legal rights to enter people’s homes and fit the pre-pay devices if customers have not paid their bills.
British Gas had been granted 186,000 warrants to enter customers’ homes in the last five years.
It is the biggest energy provider in the country, but the number of warrants issued represented 2.6pc of its million customer base – almost treble the 0.9pc industry average – raising questions over the use of such powers and prompting MPs to call for a ban on the practice in November.
There can be major repercussions for customers switched to prepayment meters. They are typically more expensive than traditional meters, although all tariffs are temporarily being capped by the Government.
Customers with prepayment meters also risk being effectively disconnected from the power network if their balance falls to zero. Households with traditional meters are rarely cut off by suppliers.