British Gas breaks into property over unpaid bill: but there's no gas

Stephanie MacDonald-Walker

Stephanie MacDonald-Walker returned home from work to discover that a British Gas engineer had broken into her house. He had tried to fit a gas pre-payment meter, but discovered that there was no gas supply to the flat, so left a number and asked her to call. Shockingly, this was something she had called to tell the company about a month earlier.

So what happened, and does an energy company really have the right to break in?
The Leicester Mercury reported that MacDonald-Walker, a boutique owner from Stoneygate in Leicester, had moved into the property four months earlier. In August British Gas sent her a bill of £367 addressed to a former occupant.

She told the newspaper that she had called the company to explain that it wasn't her bill, because there was no gas supply at the property. The employee told her it must have been a mistake.

The Daily Mail says that this was the last she heard, before returning home to discover a card which told her that a British Gas engineer had broken in while she was out in order to fit a pre-payment meter, but had failed because there was no gas supply.

The company has apologised, and said that the fault lay with the fact that they had the wrong meter reading. They told the Mail that they were investigating what happened as a matter of urgency.

But can an energy company really break in?

It seems bizarre, but unlike anyone else you owe money to, they can. A 1954 law allows them to apply to a magistrate for a warrant to enter the property to disconnect the gas, inspect a meter, remove it, re-install it or replace it. They can also change or repair supply lines or pipes. In this instance, British Gas had a warrant, so had the right to break in.

It's worth noting that if you try to stop someone with a warrant breaking in, you are committing an offence, and can be fined up to £1,000 - which seems a remarkable outcome for trying to stop someone breaking into your home.

However, before they are given the warrant they have to prove that you have been given 24-hours notice, that you have already refused them entry, or that there's no-one living at the property. Clearly these things went awry in this instance.

The fact that there was an error in the first place isn't hugely surprising or alarming: mistakes do happen. However, the catalogue of mistakes in evidence here is very alarming. Most worrying is the fact that the internal processes failed to pass on the fact that MacDonald-Walker had confirmed there was no gas supply to the property. It means that informing the company of something material is not always enough to protect yourself. They then failed to contact her regarding the warrant, or to attempt to arrange access to the property - which she would have been able to do without any of the distress and upset.

She pointed out to the Mail that: "Their behaviour has been disgraceful. They did not listen to me at all. If they had done, none of this would have happened."

10 consumer rights you should know
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British Gas breaks into property over unpaid bill: but there's no gas

The law states that any goods you buy from a UK retailer should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable amount of time.

This applies even if you buy items in a sale or with a discount voucher. You may have to insist on these rights being respected, though.

Useful phrases to use when you want to show you mean business include, "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979" and, if it's a service, "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".

Some shops will allow you to exchange goods without a receipt, but they can refuse to should they wish.

If the goods are faulty, however, another proof of purchase such as a bank statement should work just as well.

If you attempt to return goods within four weeks of the purchase, your chances of getting a full refund are much higher as you can argue that you have not "accepted" them.

After this point, you can only really expect an exchange, repair or part-refund.

The updated Consumer Credit Act states that card companies are jointly and severally liable for credit card purchases of between £100 and £60,260 (whether or not you paid just a deposit or the whole amount on your card).

Anyone spending between these amounts on their credit card is therefore protected if the retailer or service provider goes bust, their online shopping never arrives or the items in question are faulty or not as described.

Start by writing to the agency asking it to either remove or change the entry that you think is wrong. It will investigate the matter and find out whether you have been the victim of ID theft or a bank's mistake.

Within 28 days from receipt of your letter the agency should tell you how the bank has responded. If the bank agrees to change the entry, they will authorise the agency to update their records. They should also send updates to any other credit reference agencies they use.

You can also contact your lender directly to query a mistake. If the lender agrees to the discrepancy, ask them to confirm this in writing on their letterhead and send a copy to the agency, asking them to update your file.

The FOS settles disputes between financial companies such as banks and consumers.

If a financial organisation rejects a complaint you make about its services, you can therefore escalate that complaint to the FOS - as long as you have given the company in question at least eight weeks to respond.

The FOS will then investigate the case, and could force the company to offer you compensation should it see fit.

Bailiffs are allowed to take some of your belongings to sell on to cover certain debts, including unpaid Council Tax and parking fines.

They can, for example, take so-called luxury items such as TVs or games consoles. However, they cannot take essentials such as fridges or clothes.

What's more, they can only generally enter your home to take your stuff if you leave a door or window open or invite them in.

You are therefore within your rights to refuse them access and to ask for related documents such as proof of their identity. If they try to force their way in, you can also call the police to stop them.

Private sector debt collectors do not have the same powers as bailiffs, whatever they tell you.

They cannot, for example, enter your home and take your possessions in lieu of payment.

In fact, they can only write, phone, or visit your home to talk to you about paying back the debt. As with bailiffs, you can also call the police if you feel physically threatened.

Thanks to the Distance Selling Regulations, you actually have more rights buying online or by phone than on the High Street.

You can, for example, send most goods back within a week, for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.

You will usually need to pay for the return delivery, though. The seller must then refund you within 30 days.

We enter into contracts all the time, whether it be to join a gym, switch energy supplier or take out a loan.

In most cases, once you've signed a contract, you are legally bound by it. In some situations, however, you have the right to cancel it within a certain timeframe.

Credit agreements, for example, can be cancelled within 14 days. And online retailers must tell you about your cancellation rights for any contract made up to stand up legally.

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