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Business Secretary Grant Shapps has said he is “horrified” after claims British Gas sent debt collectors who broke into customers’ homes to install prepayment meters.

It follows an investigation by The Times that alleged 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.

Mr Shapps said he has asked Graham Stuart, energy minister, to hold a meeting with the company in the “coming days”.

Centrica, the owner of British Gas, said in a statement that “all warrant activity” had been suspended and that protecting vulnerable customers is an “absolute priority”.

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Prepayment meter controversy

The Times reported that British Gas customers who had pre-payment meters fitted by force included a woman in her 50s described in job notes as “severe mental health bipolar” and a mother whose “daughter is disabled and has a hoist and electric wheelchair”.

In its undercover investigation, the paper also alleged that Arvato Financial Solutions employees were incentivised with bonuses to fit prepayment meters.

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The report comes amid the rising cost of living.

In its statement, Centrica said it would complete a “thorough investigation” and the warranty suspension would last “until at least after winter”.

Centrica CEO Chris O’Shea said: “Protecting vulnerable customers is an absolute priority and we have clear processes and policies to ensure we manage customer debt carefully and safely. The allegations around our third-party contractor Arvato [Financial Solutions] are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant activity.”

Arvato Financial Solutions told the Times it “acts compliantly at all times in accordance with the regulatory requirements” and the findings did not represent the company’s views or its official guidance on how to interact with customers.

A spokesman told the paper: “If there has been any verbal or any other type of misconduct by individual employees, we deeply regret it.”

British Gas said the advert was filmed before the third COVID wave and industrial action

According to energy regulator Ofgem, getting a court warrant to force-fit a prepayment meter should be a “last resort” after “all reasonable steps have been taken to agree payment”.

It said suppliers cannot force-fit a prepayment meter under warrant for people in “very vulnerable situations” if they do not want one and they cannot use warrants “on people who would find the experience very traumatic”.

Last week, Ofgem announced it is to review the checks and balances that energy firms have around placing customers on prepayment meters, warning it will take further legal action if it finds they are not taking due care.

According to Citizens Advice, an estimated 3.2 million people across Britain ran out of credit on their prepayment meter last year because they could not afford to top it up.

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Business

Food and fashion push retail inflation towards ‘two-year low’

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Food and fashion push retail inflation towards 'two-year low'

The annual rate of shop price inflation has eased to its lowest level for almost two years, according to an industry reading that credits food and fashion prices.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC)-Nielsen Shop Price Index showed the pace of price increases slowed to 2.5% over the 12 months to February from 2.9% the previous month.

It was the lowest reading since March 2022, the BRC said.

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It was driven by a significant contribution from food, with prices 5% up on a year ago compared with the 6.1% figure registered at the end of January.

The report pointed to price drops for meat, fish and fruit helping fresh food inflation down to 3.4% from an annual rate of 4.9% just four weeks ago.

The BRC credited easing input costs for energy and fertiliser and “fierce” competition for cash-strapped shoppers among retailers.

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‘We’re seeing fewer weekly customers’

A separate report by Kantar Worldpanel, which logs supermarket price and sales data, also pointed to an easing in grocery price inflation but it believed food shoppers would be spared a big acceleration in prices ahead.

Its strategic insight director, Tom Steel, said: “Though there’s been lots of discussion about the impact the Red Sea shipping crisis might have on the cost of goods, supermarkets have been pulling out all the stops to keep prices down and help people manage their budgets.

“This month, Morrison’s became the latest retailer to launch a price match scheme with Aldi and Lidl, after Asda made the move in January.

“More generally, we saw promotions accelerate this month after a post-Christmas slowdown. Consumers’ spending on offers increased by 4% in February, worth £586m more than the same month in 2023.”

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The BRC pointed out rising costs for things like furniture and electrical goods but extended offers on fashion, to entice spending by customers, during February.

It saw risks ahead to slowing price growth from a series of issues including disruption to shipping in the Red Sea to minimum wage and business rates hikes planned for April.

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Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, said: “Easing supply chain pressures have begun to feed through to food prices, but significant uncertainties remain as geopolitical tensions rise.

“Prices of non-food goods will be more susceptible to shipping costs, which have risen due to the re-routing of imports around the Cape of Good Hope.

“Domestically, retailers face a major rise to their business rates bills in April, determined by last September’s sky-high inflation rate.

“April’s rates rise should be based on April’s inflation, and the chancellor should use the… budget to make this correction, supporting business investment and helping to drive down prices for consumers.”

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Record number of in-store transactions made using contactless

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Record number of in-store transactions made using contactless

A record 93.4% of in-store card transactions up to £100 were made using contactless in 2023, according to data from Barclays.

The figures are based on Barclays debit card and Barclaycard credit card transactions.

Shoppers made 231 transactions on average, spending an average of £15.69 each time.

This added up to the typical shopper making £3,620 worth of contactless payments over the year.

While contactless is still more popular among younger age groups, the gap between older and younger people using the tech is narrowing, Barclays said.

Last year, the proportion of active users among 85 to 95-year-olds passed 80% for the first time.

And for the third year in a row, the over-65s were the fastest-growing group for contactless usage, Barclays said.

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A survey of 2,000 people by Opinium Research for Barclays indicated just 3% of over-75s prefer using mobile payments to physical cards – compared with a quarter (25%) of 18 to 34-year-olds who said they prefer to use their phone.

More than a fifth (22%) of people aged 18 to 34 regularly leave their wallet behind when out shopping in favour of paying with their smartphone, compared with just 1% of over-75s.

Just under a fifth (18%) of people said they struggled to remember their PIN.

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For the second year running, the Friday just before Christmas (22 December 2023) was the biggest day for contactless payments, as shoppers picked up last-minute gifts and enjoyed drinks as they clocked off for the holiday.

Karen Johnson, head of retail at Barclays, said: “In 2024, we expect to see a greater shift to payments using mobile wallets, as more bricks-and-mortar businesses integrate the technology into their customer experience.

“Many of our hospitality and leisure clients are finding success by giving customers the ability to order and pay from their table by scanning a QR code.”

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‘Real danger’ UK will miss out on economic growth without green plan – CBI economists warn

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'Real danger' UK will miss out on economic growth without green plan - CBI economists warn

The UK will “miss out” on economic growth unless it finally comes up with an industrial strategy to green the economy, the leading business group has warned.

As the UK economy has stagnated in recent years, the value of green industries like renewables, eco-friendly heating and energy storage is growing and will help unlock further cash for the UK, according to economists at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

They found that while Britain’s GDP growth was stuck at around 0.1% last year, its net zero economy grew by 9%, and attracted billions of pounds in private investment.

It argues private investment is key to unlocking growth.

The UK has committed to reaching net zero by 2050, but the report comes after Labour rowed back on its £28bn green investment pledge, and the Conservatives waged a rhetorical attack on climate policies.

Net zero means almost eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and requires changes to almost every sector, from food to housing, transport to construction.

The businesses implementing these changes – including solar panel installers and green finance advisers – added £74bn in Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2022-23, which is larger than the economy of Wales (£66 billion), according to the CBI Economics report.

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But analysts at CBI Economics and thinktank ECIU, which commissioned the report, warned “the strength of future growth is in jeopardy”.

Unless the UK draws up a “Net Zero Investment Plan”, it will lose out to places with larger economies with clear plans, like the US And EU, it said.

Louise Hellem, CBI chief economist, said: “Green growth prizes could deliver a boost of up to £57bn to GDP by 2030, but global competition is heating up.

She added: “If we can’t outspend our international competitors, we need to outsmart them. And the way to do that is really through ambitious policy frameworks that can direct capital into the UK’s green industries.”

Ms Hellem said the UK economy is “well-placed to be a world leader in this space”, given its “unique blend of advanced manufacturing capacity, world leading services industry and energy technical skills”.

“That means that investors do really see opportunities in the UK market.”

‘Real danger’ UK will miss out

Getting to net zero is likely to cost about £10bn a year until 2050, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, which is roughly equivalent to the annual defence budget, though the majority of the cost is likely to be recouped in savings.

Many technologies that scientists believe are essential to the net zero transition remain extremely expensive, such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.

Adam Berman, deputy director of advocacy at industry group Energy UK, said public investment can “de-risk” these technologies and “crowd in” private sector cash, that can then bring down the price.

Jess Ralston from energy thinktank ECIU, said: “The UK is in real danger of missing out on more investment from negative rhetoric and U-turns around net zero, when the EU and US are offering clear plans and are willing to invest themselves.

“Investors want certainty and that comes from long term stable policy – whoever forms the next government will have to remember that, if it wants to see the net zero economy continue to grow.”

Watch The Climate Show with Tom Heap on Saturday and Sunday at 3pm and 7.30pm on Sky News, on the Sky News website and app, and on YouTube and Twitter.

The show investigates how global warming is changing our landscape and highlights solutions to the crisis.

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