A prepayment electricity meter with key
The Scottish Courts Service has announced that it will review the supply guarantee procedure following the outcry over the forced installation of offtake meters.
Energy companies are said to have applied for at least 32,000 such warrants in Scotland in 2022.
The Times recently discovered that British Gas debtors had broken into the homes of vulnerable people to align meters.
On Thursday, industry regulator Ofgem urged companies to suspend the practice.
He called on all providers to review the use of court orders to enter the homes of delinquent customers, saying companies needed to “get their house in order”.
In Scotland, there is no overall record of the number of guarantees of use that have been made, as only a few individual courts choose to record the information.
The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) told BBC Scotland it was maintaining the number of requests for public service search warrants for the “processing of relevant court costs”.
But he added: ‘A task force has now been set up to review the supply order processing process, including the data collected, in order to improve the information currently available.’
Although Ofgem has ordered a review of prepayment meters to ‘detect bad practice’, it does not have the power to impose a full ban.
However, British Gas and EDF have announced that they will halt the forced installation while they carry out reviews. Energy company OVO said it shut down in November last year.
How does the process work in Scotland?
After a long period of non-payment by a customer, an energy company may try to put them on a prepaid meter.
The company will seek a warrant under the Right of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954 – a bill that was drafted when utilities were still under government control.
Arrest warrants are dealt with by the Scottish Magistrates’ Court – the lowest level of the court system which normally deals with minor criminal cases. It is presided over by a justice of the peace, a lay judge appointed by the local community.
The law itself states that companies must satisfy a justice of the peace that they have fulfilled their obligations to the customer. This includes writing to the client seven days before the company requests the search.
Unless the client objects, the arrest warrant will be issued without a hearing.
Campaigners including Poverty Alliance and Energy Action Scotland said the system was ‘opaque’ and the reporting process inadequate.
Prepayment meter price cap graph
Debt adviser and activist Alan McIntosh told BBC Scotland he had contacted authorities for months to gather information about the trial.
He said, “People are groping in the dark. It was a worrying time for people who risked getting themselves into debt from fuel bills.
“The problem is that it seems completely opaque to people. How this process works, what companies can order and what they do.
“For some, the first time you know something, a warrant for your arrest could be issued.”
In a sample referral form provided to the BBC by Mr McIntosh and used at Tayside, there is no question as to whether the debt is disputed or the customer is at risk.
What is its prevalence in Scottish dishes?
The Herald originally reported that there were more than 32,000 filings for utility warrants in the first 10 months of 2022.
Activists shared reports with the newspaper last month that more than 4,500 were granted because some courts decided to register the result.
This week, the Scottish Parliament’s Social Justice Committee wrote to the Scottish Government, the Courts Service and energy companies asking for more transparency in the way arrest warrants are handled.
SNP MSP chair Natalie Don said she found the practice of forced entry to install prepaid meters to be “appalling”.
MSP Natalie Don is Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Social Justice Committee
She told the BBC: “We are currently in the process of contacting a number of different stakeholders to find out what steps can be taken as I think these mandates could be more transparent.
“There are guidelines, but I don’t think they are mandatory and there could be improvements in the way the system is run, in terms of notifying people when a request is made, a time limit minimum notice and verification that reasonable efforts have been made to try to work with people.
The Scottish Government has said legislative powers over supply guarantees are reserved for Westminster, but it is aware of the “terrible impact” the forced installation of prepayment meters is having on people in vulnerable situations.
It states: “How the independent courts in Scotland consider applications for warrants made under the reserved law is a matter for the courts.
“It is essential that the UK Government takes urgent action to ensure that appropriate safeguards and safeguards are in place to prevent a repeat of the disgraceful practices reported this week.
“In the meantime, we encourage any affected customers who need help to contact Advice Direct Scotland.”
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