British Gas suspends force-fitting prepayment meters

It follows a report that agents broke into the homes of vulnerable people to install the equipment.

Image source, Getty Images

British Gas has suspended the force-fitting of prepayment meters, after a report said it imposed them on vulnerable customers.

The Times reported a company employed by British Gas broke into homes to fit the meters, despite signs that children and disabled people were living there.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps said he was “horrified” by the findings.

British Gas’s owner Centrica said it would suspend the use of court warrants that allow forced installations.

Centrica said the suspension would last “until at least after winter” and that protecting vulnerable people was its priority.

It comes amid the rising cost of living and as household bills soar in part due to mounting energy costs.

The allegations centre on Arvato Financial Solutions, a third-party company used by British Gas to pursue debts.

In an undercover investigation, The Times said its reporter went with Arvato Financial Solutions’ agents to the house of a single father, with three children.

After establishing the property was unoccupied, the reporter observed the agents work with a locksmith to force their way in and install a prepayment meter.

Agents also fitted a prepayment meter by force at the home of a young mother with an infant baby, the newspaper said.

Others who experienced similar treatment, according to materials seen by The Times, include a mother whose daughter is disabled and a woman described as having mobility problems.

Chris O’Shea, the chief executive of Centrica, described the allegations relating to Arvato Financial Solutions were “unacceptable” and that they had immediately suspended the company’s warrant activity.

He said he was “extremely disappointed” about what had occurred, adding: “As a result, on Wednesday morning, we took a further decision to suspend all our prepayment warrant activity at least until the end of the winter”.

Mr O’Shea said the firm had “clear processes and policies” to ensure it manages customer debt safely.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps said: “I am horrified by the findings of this investigation.”

“Switching customers – and particularly those who are vulnerable – to prepayment meters should only ever be a last resort and every other possible alternative should be exhausted,” he said.

“These findings suggest British Gas are doing anything but this.”

Mr Shapps said the energy minister would hold a meeting with British Gas “in the coming days,” adding: “He will be demanding answers to ensure this systemic failure is addressed.”

A spokesperson for energy regulator Ofgem said: “It is unacceptable for any supplier to impose forced installations on vulnerable customers struggling to pay their bills before all other options have been exhausted and without carrying out thorough checks to ensure it is safe and practicable to do so.”

People using prepayment meters pay for their gas and electricity by topping up their meter, either through accounts or by adding credit to a card in a convenience store or Post Office.

This is a more expensive method of paying than by direct debit, but is sometimes the only option for people who have struggled to pay and are in debt to an energy supplier.

Many rented properties also have prepayment meters.

Problems can arise when residents no longer have any credit left on the meter, and have no money to top it up – leaving them unable to cook or heat their homes.

Last month, the Citizens Advice charity called for a ban on energy companies “forcing” customers onto prepayment meters because they are struggling to pay bills.

In response to The Times, Gillian Cooper, head of energy policy at Citizens Advice, said: “It’s truly shocking to see the extent of bad practices amongst some energy suppliers.

“Our frontline advisers know only too well the desperate situations so many struggling customers have found themselves in. Time and time again we have called for a ban on forced prepayment meter installations until new protections for customers are brought in.

“Ofgem and the Government need to act now – serious reforms must be made before these suppliers can be trusted again.”

BBC News has contacted Arvato Financial Solutions for comment.

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A father ‘gone too soon’: Tyre Nichols funeral held in Memphis

Thousands are in Memphis to mourn the 29-year-old father who was fatally beaten by police.

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Thousands of people have gathered at Memphis’ Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church to mourn the death of 29-year-old father Tyre Nichols.

Mr Nichols died three days after he was beaten by police following a traffic stop.

Five officers were charged last week in his murder.

Family and friends as well as national figures, including Vice President Kamala Harris, are in Tennessee to pay their respects to Mr Nichols.

Graphic bodycam footage of Mr Nichols’ encounter with police released last week showed him being brutally punched, kicked, pepper-sprayed and hit by police officers.

Mr Nichols was black, as are the police officers now charged with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and oppression.

The fatal assault has sparked nationwide peaceful protests against police violence.

Mr Nichols’ funeral began at 13:00 local time (19:00 GMT), after it was pushed back due to bad weather.

Those speaking at the ceremony described Mr Nichols as a kind and caring father, while a slideshow of images displayed his many passions, including skateboarding, the sunset and time with his mother and son.

Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, a pastor at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, began the service by saying he hoped the ceremony could offer a moment to “cry with each other” and call for “comprehensive legislative reform”.

Mourners are gathered to remember a “son, father, brother, friend, human being gone too soon, denied his rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, Dr Turner said.

Kamala Harris also gave a brief speech, telling Mr Nichols’ family, the “people of our country mourn with you”.

“Mothers around the world, when their babies are born, pray to god when they hold that child that that body and that life will be safe,” she said. “Yet we have a mother and a father who mourn the life of a young man who should be here today.”

She called Mr Nichols’ death “an act of violence at the hands and the feet of people who have been charged with keeping them safe”, and called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

“Let our memory of Tyre shine a light on the path toward peace and justice,” she added.

Image source, Getty Images

The families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both of whom died as a result of police violence, also attended the funeral, where civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton gave a eulogy.

Speaking at the ceremony, Mr Nichols’ family remembered him as a polite, gentle young man who touched many lives.

His sister Keyana Dixon said through tears that her younger brother was “robbed of his life, his passions and his talents, but not his light”.

Mr Nichols’ other sister recited a poem titled I’m just trying to go home, a reference to what Mr Nichols’ told police officers in bodycam footage.

“I’ve skated across barriers designed to hold me back. I’m just trying to go home, where the love is loud and the smiles are warm, like the sunsets that come for me in the coldest of my storms,” she said.

Rev Sharpton noted Mr Nichols was murdered in the same city as Dr Martin Luther King Jr 55 years before. There’s “nothing more insulting and offensive” than police officers beating their “brother” to death, he said.

“If that man had been white you wouldn’t have beat him like that that night,” he said, pledging to never let Mr Nichols’ “memory die”.

Image source, Getty Images

Ben Crump, the high-profile attorney representing Mr Nichols’ family, delivered what he described as a “call to action” at the funeral. “We have to make sure [police] see us as human beings that deserve justice,” he said. “And that’s what we’re going to get for Tyre Nichols: equal justice.”

He said Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis’ “swift response” in charging officers was a “blueprint” for justice going forward.

Police Chief Davis has said the treatment of Mr Nichols “defied humanity”.

Mr Nichols grew up in Sacramento, California before moving to Memphis in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic to be closer to his mother. He was a father to a four-year-old boy, and worked at FedEx with his own stepfather Rodney Wells.

The youngest of four children, Mr Nichols is described by family members as a loving son who enjoyed photography.

“Nobody’s perfect, but he was damn near,” his mother, Ms Wells, said.

Civil rights activists and the family’s lawyers have said police culture is responsible for his death and have called for reforms in the wake of the incident.

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Pope Francis in DR Congo: A million celebrate Kinshasa Mass

This is said to be the second largest Mass Pope Francis has held, after one in the Philippines in 2015.

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Pope Francis has celebrated one of his biggest Masses, with around a million attendees in Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, estimates say.

Huge crowds started to gather in Kinshasa well before dawn, including scores of schoolgirls dressed in white who danced along the Pope’s route.

A public holiday was declared, so as many people as possible could attend.

Around half of DR Congo’s population is Catholic – the largest Catholic community in Africa.

It is more than 37 years since a pope has visited the mineral-rich but conflict-ridden country.

Pope Francis was greeted by jubilant scenes at at N’dole airport: “My joy is too huge that I think I am going to cry,” Christella Bola told the Reuters news agency.

Image source, AFP

Image source, AFP

A 700-person choir, that had been practising together long before the pontiff was originally due to visit last July, had been assembled specifically for the event. The Pope’s original visit had to be postponed because of poor health.

There had been some murmurings that the Pope has not been as critical of DR Congo’s political leadership as some had hoped, but the Mass was a joyful event, and the pontiff did have a strong message of peace for those engaging in conflict in the country.

Warring sides should forgive one another and grant their opponents a “great amnesty of the heart”, he said.

He went on to espouse the benefits of cleansing one’s heart of “anger and remorse, of every trace of resentment and hostility”.

Mattieu Nzuzi, one of those in the crowd said he hoped the pontiff’s visit would usher an end to the violence in the east of the country, near the border with Rwanda: “I hope that the visit here of the Pope to the Congo will bring peace to our country because over there, near Rwanda, the people are suffering,” he said.

However, the second day of his visit coincides with a continuation of fighting between the Congolese army and rebels.

Image source, AFP

Image source, Reuters

Image source, AFP

Wednesday’s Mass was tipped to be one of Pope Francis’ largest-ever Masses, second only to one held in the Philippines in 2015, according to Christopher Lamb, the Rome correspondent of the Catholic magazine The Tablet.

In an interview with the BBC’s Newsday radio programme, he said Catholicism was growing in Africa: “This is the future of the church and the growth of the Catholic Church in Africa really is so important to the future of Catholicism.”

On Tuesday, the Pope met President Félix Tshisekedi and delivered a speech condemning historical exploitation of Africa’s resources, which he described as “economic colonialism”.

He also addressed DR Congo’s plight, as minerals have played a key role in more than three decades of armed conflict there: “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa, it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”

However, a planned visit to the eastern city of Goma has been cancelled for security reasons. The eastern part of DR Congo is facing escalating violence as security services fight against armed militia groups.

According to the United Nations, some six million people have been forced to flee their homes in DR Congo.

That is one of the largest populations of displaced people in the world, alongside places like Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Ukraine.

Most of the displaced are in the eastern provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri.

Image source, AFP

Image source, AFP

Read more about the conflict in DR Congo:

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Nikki Haley poised to enter 2024 presidential race

The former UN ambassador will reportedly announce a presidential run at an event on 15 February.

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Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and two-term governor of South Carolina, is reportedly poised to announce she is seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

With a campaign kick-off planned for 15 February in Charleston, South Carolina, the 51-year-old would become the second major Republican candidate for the presidency, after her former boss Donald Trump launched his bid in November.

Ms Haley would be the third Indian-American to seek a presidential nomination. She follows Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, whose bid in 2015 never gained significant traction, and current Vice-President Kamala Harris, who sought the 2020 nomination.

During her time as South Carolina governor, Ms Haley developed a reputation as a business-friendly leader who focused on attracting major companies to the state. She gained national prominence for her response to the racially motivated mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in 2015, which included a successful push to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia.

Although she endorsed Florida Senator Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican presidential contest, Mr Trump offered her a position in his cabinet as UN ambassador after he won the White House. She served there for two years and, unlike many of Mr Trump’s early appointees, never had a public falling out with the president.

Ms Haley did, however, criticise Mr Trump’s behaviour up to and during the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol by his supporters. The day after the riot, she said in a speech that “his actions since election day will be judged harshly by history”.

Later that year, as speculation surrounding her political future swirled and Mr Trump regained his standing and influence within the party, Ms Haley said she would not run for president in 2024 if her former boss sought the nomination.

She backed away from that position in the past few months, however.

“When you’re looking at a run for president, you look at two things,” she said in a Fox News interview last week. “You first look at does the current situation push for new leadership? The second questions is, am I that person that could be that new leader?”

Ms Haley answered both questions with a yes. It suggests a possible campaign strategy that contrasts her relative youth with both Mr Trump and, if she were to win the nomination, Democrat Joe Biden.

According to Mr Trump, Ms Haley called him recently to inform him of her interest in running. He said he told her she should do it and he would welcome the competition.

“I said, ‘Look, you know, go by your heart if you want to run’,” he said.

The former president made those remarks shortly before a campaign appearance on Saturday in Ms Haley’s home state, which is poised to become a key early battleground for the Republican nomination.

Most early polls show Mr Trump with a comfortable lead in the state whose primary he won on his way to the presidency in 2016 – an indication of the uphill battle the former ambassador will have, even on what should be friendly ground.

A recent survey by the polling firm Trafalgar Group that included current and likely candidates has Mr Trump in first place with 43% and Ms Haley in fourth at 12%.

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Milton Keynes: Candlelit vigil held for girl killed in dog attack

A four-year-old girl, named locally as Alice Stones, was killed by a family pet, police say.

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A dog attack that killed a four-year-old girl in Milton Keynes was a “tragic isolated incident” involving a family pet, police have confirmed.

Officers attended a house on Broadlands in Netherfield at 17:00 GMT on Tuesday after reports a dog had attacked a child in a back garden.

The victim has been named locally as Alice Stones, but she has not been formally identified.

Thames Valley Police said no arrests had been made.

Officers are also working to establish the breed of the dog, which was “humanely destroyed”.

Speaking on Wednesday afternoon, Supt Marc Tarbit said: “An investigation is currently under way to fully understand the circumstances, but we believe this was a tragic isolated incident and there is no threat to the wider community.

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“Accordingly, no arrests have been made at this time.

“I can confirm that the dog was a family pet and it was put down by police at the scene yesterday evening.”

Supt Tarbit said there would be a stronger police presence locally over the coming days.

“This is clearly an incident that has shocked and upset people,” he added, “and I urge residents to speak to officers with any questions or concerns they may have.

“I’d also like to ask the community for their support in not speculating about this matter and offer reassurance that our detectives are working hard to progress the investigation.”

A vigil will be held at the nearby Grand Union Vineyard Church at 19:00 GMT, senior pastor Chris Morley confirmed.

Rishi Sunak expressed his condolences to the family during Prime Minister’s Questions and thanked the emergency services for responding “rapidly and professionally”.

Local residents have spoken of their shock at the news of the four-year-old’s death.

Neighbour Rita Matthews, 36, said she would see the youngster while walking her own daughter to school and described her as a “happy little girl”.

“It’s so sad we’re not going to see the girl again and I pray all the best to her mum to get her strength back,” she said.

Mr Morley said the church would be open all day to allow locals time for “quiet reflection”.

“Our hearts are really for the family, but we realise a tragedy like this cuts to the heart of the community here in Netherfield,” he said.

“It’s just being available to people, if people need to talk, and to be around.

“The Netherfield community, and I’ve seen it over the years I’ve been here, whether it was the flood of 2018 or the stabbing of that young lad last year, always seems to draw together.”

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