As published in Welsh Housing Quarterly magazine, issue 90.
Spiralling energy costs coupled with declining household incomes may partly explain why there appears to be an increasing problem with electricity abstraction.
In some areas, criminal gangs are working in housing estates, offering desperate bill payers the option of rewiring meters at a cost. Other bill payers are sometimes tempted to have a go themselves. Some will steal their electricity to hide the excessive energy use which may reveal drug related activities.
Whatever the reason for abstracting electricity, it is clear that it is extremely dangerous to do so. Experts confirm that there is a risk of electrocution and a serious risk of sparking, fire or even explosion. It is therefore a huge safety risk to the household itself, to visitors and neighbouring properties. It is also a criminal offence under s13 Theft Act 1968.
Electricity companies monitor usage, in particular to identify dips or spikes. Spikes can be caused by a number of issues, but one is cannabis farming, known to create very excessive usage. A dip in use suggests abstraction if the bill payer has not moved out. A dip in use may itself lead to a suspicion of cannabis farming, which the perpetrator is endeavouring to cover up. In any case where they have concerns, they are likely to contact the landlord for their assistance in an investigation. If no dip in usage is picked up, abstraction may come to a landlord’s attention following a fire at a property or during routine maintenance (if access is allowed), or information from neighbours.
So, as landlords, what are your options and responsibilities?
The first obstacle is obtaining access to investigate; there is a good chance access will not be voluntarily given and either an injunction or the assistance of the police in obtaining a warrant may be necessary. If you have evidence to suggest abstraction is happening, an injunction to get access should be straightforward to obtain. If the investigation confirms suspicions, it is a very serious breach of tenancy as well as being a criminal offence and you have grounds to seek eviction or an injunction. If there is a case of genuine fuel poverty, and it is a first offence, there may be reason to consider leniency, particularly if there is reason to believe the behaviour will not be repeated.
However, in cases we have dealt with, even following fires, tenants who have abstracted have gone on to do it again. The result is huge repair bills and ongoing safety risks. Moreover, in order to deal with this increasing problem, it will be important to be publicly seen to be dealing with cases. There are, in short, good grounds to take a strong stance.
We have succeeded in obtaining eviction orders as well as exclusion injunctions which have immediate effect and a power of arrest attached in abstraction cases. What has been useful in achieving these results is the witness evidence provided by experienced officers of the electricity company, which gives real insight into the dangers presented by abstraction.
The next question for the court will be whether there is a real risk the tenant will repeat the behaviour. You are likely to be able to demonstrate this if there has been a previous history. If this is the case, or if there has been cannabis farming going on, then there is a compelling case to remove the tenant from their home. It is worthwhile building a good working relationship with utility companies as it is collaborative working on these issues which produces results. Housing providers who do not already do so might include information for tenants in their newsletters about the dangers of abstraction and the action which it might lead to in the hope of deterring some from committing this criminal offence.
If you have any queries or want to receive more information, please contact the Hugh James Anti-Social Behaviour Team on 029 2066 0555.