Bailiffs forcibly entered a student home and installed a pre-payment energy meter after accommodation firm UniHomes seemingly failed to pass on the household’s payments to the energy supplier, openDemocracy can reveal.
UniHomes, a Sheffield-based platform that works with partner letting agents across 36 UK cities, offers simplified packages in which students’ rent, energy and Wi-Fi bills are rolled into one fixed-price payment.
But students at several different universities have told openDemocracy that they’ve been threatened by bailiffs, debt collectors and energy companies – despite having paid their bills to Unihomes.
Lucy*, a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton who lives with four other PhD students, was left without any power after Unihomes failed to pay her energy provider.
On 26 January, one of her housemates returned home to find three debt collectors acting on behalf of Scottish Power had forcibly entered the property after receiving a warrant to install a pre-payment meter.
“We felt just incredibly uneasy and uncomfortable that people had been in our home without our permission,” Lucy told openDemocracy. “To arrive back home to men we don’t know in our house is just scary, particularly when it’s not our fault.”
Lucy and her housemates complained to UniHomes, which said it would take responsibility for topping up the meter.
But a little over 24 hours later, on Saturday 28 January, the credit ran out, leaving the house without power over the weekend. The students were unable to get through to UniHomes, as its customer service office is closed on weekends.
On Monday, UniHomes credited their energy account with £187 for the month – which Lucy says is nowhere near enough for the winter months and far less than the £380 the household pays for ‘unlimited’ energy usage.
Lucy and her housemates first became aware of the problem when they received a letter from a debt collection agency used by Scottish Power on 21 December, claiming they owed £2,632.96 – despite having paid their energy bills to UniHomes on time.
The letter said Scottish Power had applied for a warrant to fit a pre-payment meter and that they would be charged £150 for the court case. At the time, UniHomes told the students that this would be resolved and that the account name would be changed to UniHomes so they would not receive any further communication from Scottish Power – but a month later, the pre-payment meter was installed.
Scottish Power has since suspended the forced installation of pre-payment meters until the end of March, after energy watchdog Ofgem ordered suppliers to pause the practice while it conducts an investigation.
But Lucy and her housemates remain frustrated at how they have been treated by UniHomes. She said: “We are PhD students who are very busy and we’ve wasted days and days trying to get it sorted out, wasting time calling them constantly and them only getting back to us with a manager after about a week.
On 30 January, their pre-payment meter was credited with £187 for the month, which the housemates say is nowhere near enough for the winter months and far less than the combined £380 they pay UniHomes for unlimited energy usage.
“They have offered us a one-month refund on the direct debit (£76 each) which is good but it’s hardly a lot. It does feel like they couldn’t just do the one thing which they were meant to do and pay our bills!”
This latest revelation comes months after openDemocracy reported on how UniHomes had told students that their supposedly fixed-priced bills packages would be increasing.
‘Very stressful and unsettling’
Lucy is not alone. Students across the country who rent through UniHomes have told openDemocracy similar stories.
One such student is Toni, who studies medicine at the University of East Anglia. In April last year, Toni and his four housemates cancelled their contract with UniHomes. During their subsequent 60-day notice period they kept up to date with their payments, each paying £90 per month. But in December, six months after he moved out of the property, Toni, the head tenant in the former house share, received a letter from debt collectors acting on behalf of Shell, who said he owed £620.
After complaining to UniHomes, the situation was resolved the next day, but Toni says it caused him a lot of unnecessary stress.
“I was really worried how I was going to get that money during this cost of living crisis as a full-time student,” he said.
openDemocracy has seen similar complaints made by other UniHomes customers on a UEA Facebook page.
George, a 24-year-old project manager, moved into a house in Greater Manchester with his partner and her friend last August, both of whom are students at the University of Salford. The household decided to sign up for UniHomes’ fixed-price package.
Ever since, they have received monthly electricity and gas bills from SSE. The energy firm has repeatedly demanded the housemates pay the outstanding balance and informed them that their details have been passed onto debt-collecting firms, which have also phoned and texted them.
George says he and his housemates have complained to UniHomes around ten times, sending the firm pictures of bills they’ve received. UniHomes has assured them that all bills have been paid and the account with SSE is no longer in their name – but the letters from the energy company keep coming.
The housemates are concerned that this could affect their chances of getting mortgages and loans in the future. George told openDemocracy they find the uncertainty “very stressful and unsettling”.
UniHomes’ director, Phil Greaves, told openDemocracy that the cases of the students openDemocracy has spoken to “feature exceptional circumstances” and have “been fully resolved”.
But on the same day, George received another text from debt collectors. He said the situation is far from resolved.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Greaves said: “Our priority continues to be doing everything we can to support customers. Our internal procedures ensure bills are paid, with every effort made to mitigate exceptional instances.
“However, this has become more challenging because of pressures among [energy] suppliers. In the very few cases where this impacts on customers, we do our best to support them and resolve the issue as quickly as possible.
“We’re continuing to call for more government support for households, including continued support on people’s bills.
A spokesperson for Fuel Poverty Action, a campaign group that has been pushing for the government to ban forced prepayment meters, accused UniHomes of profiting off of students.
“This is the latest in a line of examples showing our energy system is not fit for purpose. Predatory middle-men like UniHomes have pocketed cash while allowing students to be disconnected during winter,” the spokesperson said.
“No one can be disconnected from their water supply as this a human right and essential to life, why should energy be any different when 1000 people were killed by cold and damp homes in December.”
Earlier this month, openDemocracy reported energy companies received more than 140,000 complaints about their treatment of customers in debt last year alone.
And a recent investigation by The Times found British Gas has been forcing vulnerable customers onto pre-paid meters, a practice Ofgem said should only be a last resort. The news prompted Ofgem to order all energy companies to suspend forcible installations.
Earlier this month the BBC also revealed that courts had been waving through applications to install prepaid meters. Following this, Lord Justice Edis, who oversees the courts in England and Wales, ordered magistrates to stop hearing applications from energy firms to forcibly install prepayment meters.
Teaser photo credit: By Alisdare Hickson from Woolwich, United Kingdom – Freeze Prices – Not the Poor., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=116723935