Company Secretary Grant Shapps has instructed the energy market regulator to crack down on suppliers in the wake of the prepayment meter scandal.
Mr Shapps accused Ofgem of “pulling the wool over their eyes” by taking literally what the energy company bosses told them and not listening to customers.
He said he gave the companies a deadline on Tuesday to report what action they would take – including compensation – regarding customers who may have mistakenly installed prepayment meters in their homes.
It follows an investigation by The Times which revealed how vulnerable customers – including disabled and mentally ill people – were forced by British Gas to use the reversal meters or have their gas shut off.
An undercover newspaper reporter worked for collection agency Arvato Financial Solutions, accompanying agents who used court orders to gain access to customers’ homes to force the meters.
In a statement, Mr Shapps said: “I am appalled that vulnerable customers struggling with their energy bills have allowed their homes to be invaded and prepayment meters installed when there is a clear duty on suppliers to support them.
“They need to refocus their efforts on their consumers, the British public, who are on the receiving end of this abhorrent behaviour.
“I also worry that the regulator is too easily distracted by what energy companies tell them to take for granted.
“They also need to listen to customers to make sure this treatment of vulnerable consumers doesn’t happen again.”
In response, Ofgem said it shared Mr Shapps’ “shock” at the findings of The Times’ inquiry and that it had ordered British Gas to halt all activities related to the order until it could demonstrate it was complying with its standards and requirements.
“Our compliance assessments have been launched to assess and tighten standards across the industry,” it said.
“Companies are required by law to submit a fair statement of the facts and we have required reviews to be signed by their boards.
“It is an extremely serious matter for any licensee to provide misleading or intentionally false information as part of these reviews.
“What is clear, as the Secretary of State has set out, is that the picture presented by companies may not accurately reflect what customers are experiencing on site.
“Therefore, further reviews will examine what we have reported to us with direct reports from customers and wider stakeholders, and possibly those involved in the delivery of services.”
Earlier this week, Ofgem ordered all domestic energy companies to suspend the system of forced installation of prepayment meters.
Companies can move customers with arrears on their energy bills to the more expensive prepayment meters, but the rules must ensure that vulnerable customers are not forced to move.
For Labour, shadow affairs secretary Ed Miliband accused Mr Shapps of repeatedly failing to take action on the issue of prepayment meters.
“Grant Shapps is the idle company secretary, who has sat on his hands in the face of the scandal of forced installment of prepayment meters, while swinging by energy companies making record profits at the expense of the British people,” he said. .
Now, even after the scandal at British Gas and the millions locked through the back door, he will still not heed Labor’s call for a total and continued ban on the forced installation of prepayment meters until there is a large-scale reform of an discredited, rotten and calloused system.