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

10 consumer rights you should know