Ofgem has said it is no longer seeking details from The Times newspaper about its undercover investigation that exposed prepayment meters were being forcibly installed in people’s homes.
The U-turn comes after cabinet minister Grant Shapps told Sky News the energy regulator should “not be pursuing, or threatening to pursue” journalists at the paper for information.
In February, The Times exposed allegations that energy companies were breaking into vulnerable customers’ homes to install prepayment meters.
An undercover investigation by the newspaper claimed agents from a company used by British Gas to pursue debts, Arvato Financial Solutions, had forced their way into homes to fit the devices, despite signs children and disabled people were living there.
Last month, energy regulator Ofgem asked suppliers to suspend the forced installation of prepayment meters and review their processes for dealing with customers who have fallen into arrears.
Mr Shapps, then business secretary, also wrote to energy bosses insisting they revise their practices and improve action to support vulnerable households and make sure installing prepayment meters is a genuine last resort.
In response, all energy suppliers committed to ending the forced installation of prepayment meters.
The Times reported last night that the paper and one of its journalists were told to hand over all their material relating to the investigation or face an unlimited fine.
It has refused to do so, saying it is journalistic material, and they are not required to comply.
Asked about the matter this morning, Mr Shapps criticised Ofgem for its actions.
He told Sky News: “Journalists in this country do an incredible job of exposing problems, holding people like me and others to account. I will always be on the side of the freedom of our press.
“Ofgem, who are a regulator, need to fix the problems that were uncovered, not be pursuing, or threatening to pursue journalists who’ve uncovered these things, I would say, that the regulator should have been finding itself.
“I can be as clear as you like on this. It is wrong for them to be pursuing the journalists. I would be very disappointed to see them progress that through the courts.
“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, which was to do with prepayment meters. I expect the regulator to do the same job.”
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An Ofgem spokesman told Sky News: “We are rescinding our information request to The Times. We will confirm formally in writing and publish later today to put it on public record.”
He added: “We initiated enforcement action against British Gas based on The Times’ detailed investigation and specific allegations.
“This is a complex process requiring extensive information gathering, primary evidence of potential licence breaches and crosschecking as many sources as possible.
“This is essential to acting in the public interest and protecting vulnerable households.”
What has British Gas said?
Centrica, the owner of British Gas, said in a statement last month that “all warrant activity” had been suspended and that protecting vulnerable customers is an “absolute priority”.
Warrant activity involves the company applying to the court for a warrant to install a prepayment meter.
Centrica boss Chris O’Shea added he was launching an independent investigation, telling Sky News’ business presenter Ian King he felt “disappointed, livid and gutted”.
He said “there is no excuse” for what the undercover investigation uncovered.