3. Theft of fuel
Theft of gas and dishonest use or ‘abstraction’ of electricity are criminal offences.1s13 (electricity) and s1 (gas) TA 1968; in Scotland, the common law offence of theftPenalties include fines or imprisonment, offences being triable either in the magistrates’ court or the Crown Court before a jury. You can be convicted of theft even if there is no damage or evidence of interference with a meter.2R v McCreadie and Tume  96 Cr AppR 143, CA The offence of ‘abstraction’ is committed where there is use of electricity without the authority of the electricity supplier by a person who has no intention of paying for it under section 13 of the Theft Act 1968.3R v McCreadie and Tume  96 Cr AppR 143, CA The offence may be committed where electrical or electronic equipment is used in premises you do not have permission to enter, or where equipment is used for a purpose for which permission is not given.4See, for example, R v Riley (2011) EWCA (Crim) 3066 The key to an offence is the question of dishonesty. If you genuinely believed you were entitled to use the fuel or had paid or would be paying for the fuel concerned, then the elements of the offence cannot be proved. The issue of what is honest or dishonest use is the standard applied by a jury as being the standards of honest, ordinary people.5Ghosh (1982) 75 Cr AppR 154 Dishonesty in the context of an offence of abstraction requires knowledge that electricity was being consumed, coupled with an assumption that it would not be paid for. A genuine belief and intention that you will pay for the electricity you have used – even in a case where a person reconnects a supply without the permission of the electricity company – will provide a defence.6Collins and Fox v Chief Constable of Merseyside  Crim LR 247; Boggeln v Williams  1 WLR 873 It is an offence to dishonestly use electricity without due authority, so a defence may exist where a person honestly believed s/he had been authorised to use the electricity.7s13 TA 1968 For example, if only one person in a multi-occupation household knows about the unlawful consumption but other occupants are ignorant of it, only the person with knowledge may be convicted of the offence. It is improper to infer guilt simply on the basis of a close relationship between members of a household where an offence has occurred.8Collins and Fox v Chief Constable of Merseyside  Crim LR 247 Prosecutions may arise in connection with other offences which involve the improper use of electricity – eg, where electricity is stolen to facilitate the cultivation of drugs. Liability can also be imposed where third parties have been knowingly hired to carry out work such as altering the arrangements for electricity supplies to premises in order to commit criminal offences. Deliberate attempts, even if no electricity or gas is illegally abstracted or loss is incurred by the supplier, will also be prosecuted.9Criminal Attempts Act 1981 The supplier is entitled to recover the costs of any fuel which has been stolen from the person liable. However, as with tampering, suppliers are more likely to address the issue of the stolen fuel by other means – ie, by threatening disconnection. Where the company transporting gas to your home (normally National Grid) is different from the actual supplier, the transporter also has the right to recover the value of the stolen gas.10Sch 2B para 9 GA 1986 Note: just because you have your name on a gas or electricity bill it does not establish you as living at a property. You are simply a consumer of fuel under contract at the address but this does not mean you are living in the property, either as a trespasser or otherwise.11Doncaster BC v Stark and Another  CO/2763/96 5 November 1997, Potts, J; Frost (Inspector of Taxes) v Feltham  1 WLR 452
Use of gas or electricity by squatters
Squatting in residential premises is a criminal offence.12s144 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 This does not change the legal position with existing supply of gas or electricity provided to a person living as a squatter where, for example, a supply has already been arranged. Provided the squatter genuinely intends to pay for the gas and electricity supplied, no offence of theft is committed.
It is important that the supplier is notified as to the use as soon as practicable and that an undertaking of willingness to pay is given. If a squatter moves into premises, uses electricity or gas and then moves out without the intention of paying for it, an offence is committed.