Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Saturday, 11 October 2008 00:00 UK

Higher bills 'boost energy theft'

By Phil Kemp
Donal MacIntyre, BBC Radio 5 live

Queens Park estate, Blackpool
Energy theft is a growing problem on Blackpool's Queens Park estate
A growing number of households are tampering with their gas or electricity meters as people struggle to pay rising fuel bills, according to an energy industry association.

BBC Radio 5 live's Donal MacIntyre programme travelled to Blackpool to investigate why more and more "meter cheaters" are prepared to put their families' lives at risk to save money.

There are no official statistics for the amount of energy stolen this way, but it is estimated 140m worth of gas and electricity is lost every year.

"We've had instances where a house has burnt down, and the seat of it appears to be the meter - it could well be that somebody had tampered with it," said Alan Dick, from the UK Revenue Protection Association (UKRPA).

Aliceon Higginbottom, estate manager, Blackpool Coastal Housing
Blackpool Coastal Housing's Aliceon Higginbottom is worried about safety
The UKRPA, which represents companies which investigate energy theft, said its perception is that theft is on the increase, and it fears the latest round of price rises will make the situation worse.

A man was recently arrested on an estate in Blackpool after allegedly tampering with meters at 10 separate addresses for a fee of 50.

It is a dismal, cold October afternoon in Blackpool when BBC News met David on the Queen's Park estate.

His electricity meter was removed last December after it was discovered it had been tampered with for the third time in two years.

Jobless and on benefits, he is facing his second winter without any heating or power.

"A lot of times when I go shopping, I just buy tins, you know like beans, and just eat out of tins," he said from the borrowed warmth of Blackpool Coastal Housing's office.

"I will survive somehow. I survived all last winter and I'll survive this one."

Risk of fire

David's electricity meter had been bypassed, which meant he was not paying for any of the energy he was using.

A modified mA meter that has been tampered with (Pic: Blackpool Coastal Housing Association).
A meter that has been modified. Photo courtesy of Blackpool Coastal Housing.
The third time the theft was discovered, burn marks were visible where the meter had been interfered with using ordinary, household wire.

The tampering had put everyone in his 22-storey tower block home at risk of fire.

David accepts the meter was tampered with, but denies it was him.

"I never, cos I don't know anything about any electricity. I can't even change a plug."

David's is just one of an increasing number of cases of tenants tampering with their meters in Blackpool Coastal Housing property.

The housing association's estate manager Aliceon Higginbottom said it had been rare to find these cases when she first came to the estate.

"Over the last couple of years it's increased significantly, and we maybe get one a week," she said.

Temptation

Energy bills went up at the beginning of the year, and again in the summer, with gas bills up by an average of nearly 50% since January 2008 for customers paying by cash or cheque.

HOW TO LISTEN...
The Donal MacIntyre programme is on Radio 5 Live on Sunday, 12 October at 1900 BST.

There are concerns the rules which dictate how the industry deals with energy theft are a disincentive for suppliers to act.

On three out of the four occasions that David's meter was tampered with in Blackpool, it was his residential social landlord who spotted it, not his electricity supplier.

Ms Higginbottom said it was quite worrying, especially in flats occupied by many people.

"It's only through the increase of this kind of offence that we are more geared towards looking out for abstract of electricity," she added.

'Disincentive'

Former industry executive Mike Boxall said investigating cases like David's isn't always in the provider's interest.

"Suppliers can actually be worse off by trying to do the right thing and reporting instances of theft.

"If a supplier does become aware that electricity has been stolen, they're then required to report the amount of energy that's been stolen - and they have to pay for that in the wholesale electricity market.

"But they've got very little chance of recovering those costs because they often can't find the person that stole the electricity in the first place," he said.

The Energy Retail Association, which represents suppliers, told 5 live energy companies take the issue of energy theft extremely seriously and that it is awaiting consultation from the regulator Ofgem on tackling the problem.

The Donal MacIntyre programme will be broadcast on BBC Radio 5 live at 7pm on Sunday 12 October, 2008 or download the programme podcast.


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