Posts Tagged ‘energy’
Energy firms are under the spotlight again. After being called out for making too much money last week, now the energy regulator Ofgem has issued a statement slapping the wrists of energy firms who are too quick to force prepay meters (PPMs) on customers struggling to pay, saying that energy should do “all they can to support customers” and to “protect” vulnerable customers who are in danger of self-disconnecting.
Of course, energy firms are always cast in a villainous light, but given the “increase in the number of PPMs installed for non-payment of debt”, Ofgem are now going to “investigate” why the numbers are rising. Ofgem have today stated, very clearly, that “installing pre-payment meters under warrant should be used as a last resort by energy suppliers when consumers get into debt. It is a way to prevent a customer from being disconnected. Suppliers can only install a prepayment meter where it is safe and reasonably practical for the consumer to use.”
It seems that Ofgem suspect that energy companies are not using PPMs as a way to help their customers out of a sticky situation, but are instead leaning on people in order to get their money faster. Ofgem have also said that energy firms might not currently be doing “all they can to support customers struggling to pay” and recommend that, before resorting to PPMs, firms should offer energy efficiency advice and signposting to social support, in line with Ofgem’s own commitment to work with Citizen’s Advice to help identify and protect vulnerable customers. They also want to see common sense applied when setting outstanding debt repayments on the meter, making sure these are at an affordable level “taking into consideration the customers’ financial circumstances.”
In addition, Ofgem note that some energy firms seem to be making it difficult for PPM customers to switch suppliers, even where switching would help customers who are struggling with bills. Ofgem want PPM switching to be easier and they are formalising energy suppliers’ current voluntary practice of allowing PPM customers with a debt of up to £500 per fuel to switch, by making it an obligation.
But of course, it’s easy for Ofgem to say these things and the energy companies to nod sagely and agree, without actually doing anything differently. However Ofgem is also going to require firms to evidence their practices and the actions they have taken to protect customers, particularly where there is additional ‘vulnerability’. For example, if customers are relying on energy for medical reasons, or have mobility problems that limit their ability to access the prepayment meter or top up the meter, the supplier will not be allowed to install a prepayment meter.
So what do you think? Should energy customers do more, or should customers take more responsibility for paying their own energy costs or face the punitive PPMs? Does it make a difference if we’re talking about a pensioner in a freezing cold home, or a working-age family?
It goes without saying that energy companies in the UK have been charging everyone a lot of money in their bills, and there’s a good chance they’ve been overcharging too. Legally, we leave the latter statement ambiguous, but you get where we’re coming from.
Ofgem, who are looking into all this, has referred the entire energy market to the Competition and Markets Authority, because there needs to be a formal investigation over the prices that everyone is paying. Are they artificially high?
Someone thinks so.
All eyes are on how much money is being made, and concerning SSE, they’ve seen profits shooting up by 40%, leaving everyone to wonder how they managed it. Of course, they’re not alone and data from Ofgem shows that (click here to see Ofgem’s lengthy report, complete with some graphs).
The Indy decided to crunch some of the numbers and statistics and came up with their own graph, which is more digestible.
Basically, the energy companies get £120 from your combined gas and electricity charges every year, which is up from 2009′s figure of £10. That’s a big ol’ jump. The problem is that The Big Six have lowered their prices, but no nearly as much as the drop in wholesale prices. If you look at gas, bills have fallen by a couple of percent, while the cost of the companies buying it has dropped by 20% – the savings are not being passed on.
An Ofgem spokesperson says: “Falls in wholesale energy prices have resulted in significantly better deals for consumers on fixed tariffs but the majority of consumers who are on standard variable tariffs do not appear to have benefited to the same extent. We look forward to seeing the CMA’s draft findings and recommendations in the coming weeks.”
That said, SSE won’t care because, despite losing half-a-million customers, they still managed to report a 39% increase in profits through their retail arm. After a number of price hikes, they pledged to freeze prices until next summer.
That’s if the government makes things easier for them.
The company said: “SSE would like to extend its price freeze again, or even cut prices if further costs can be taken out of energy supply, and will work with the new UK Government or indeed any stakeholder to find such solutions.”
While all this is going on, the Competition and Markets Authority is currently in the middle of an in-depth probe into the energy market, as there are suspicions that customers have been treated unfairly by the UK’s dominant big six energy suppliers. We’re expecting a lot of fines to be handed out in 2015/6.
As far as a UK energy company is concerned, Scottish Power has received the highest number of complaints EVER, according to new figures. They’ve seen complaints going up by a whopping 488%, according to Citizens Advice.
1,163 customers per 100,000 complained about Scottish Power in the last quarter of last year, which is the largest amount of people moaning in any one quarter. And what has caused all this? The reason is largely because of the supplier’s new billing system.
While complaints across the sector are going down, Scottish Power are reversing the trend and were banned from proactive sales in March after failing to meet customer service targets set by Ofgem, who had found that the company hadn’t made sufficient improvements regarding customer complaints.
Npower must be thrilled as they’re usually heading up the table for being the most complained about energy company. For the first two quarters of 2014, they were, but Scottish Power’s dreadfulness saw them taking the top spot in the second half of the year.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: “New billing systems are routinely failing energy customers. In the last few years, four of the largest firms have introduced new billing systems, and their implementation has caused chaos for consumers. Thousands of customers have been hit by delayed and incorrect bills which have resulted in extreme frustration and significant debts.”
“It’s encouraging that Npower is now turning the corner, but Scottish Power still has a very long way to go.”
Neil Clitheroe, chief executive of Scottish Power retail and generation, said: “We apologise unreservedly to any customers who have experienced account issues. These statistics reflect service problems in the last six months of 2014, when we had our most challenging period following the introduction of a new £200 million customer IT system.”
“To make improvements we have added 700 new customer service advisers and we worked closely with Ofgem on call waiting times, outstanding bills and ombudsman complaints. We also agreed with Ofgem to stop outbound sales for a two week period. Recently our call answering times have been among the best in the industry and outstanding complaints have been reduced significantly. We remain fully committed to resolving outstanding issues and ensuring that no customers will be left out of pocket.”
The cheapest energy deals can’t be found on suppliers’ websites. Nor on comparison site tables. Despite falling energy prices, the best energy deals are actually being reserved for groupon-style collective switching deals. Power to the people.
Fixed energy tariffs are standing at a ten year low and have dropped below £900 a year –the cheapest deal on the market currently being £899 from GB Energy Supply for an average family usage. However, there are cheaper deals available by signing up to one of the growing number of collective switching programmes, where, a bit like price-drop TV, energy companies compete to offer the lowest tariff to a defined group of committed switchers.
An £876 tariff offer by the Telegraph (newpaper) has just sold out, snapped up by 8,000 people, and today, online comparison service uSwitch has offered a matching tariff with E.On which is available for group switchers until May 23.
The idea is, of course, that the energy companies benefit by instantly getting thousands of new customers without having to woo potential switchers with pricey advertising campaigns. And they’re still making money, as these cheapest deals are actually £419 cheaper than the average energy bill owing to the fact that three quarters of customers are on standard tariffs.
But how likely is it that the lowest collective tariffs are pinching at the profits of the energy giants anyway? Global crude oil prices are less than half what they were in mid-2014 prices, but energy bills are still flying relatively high, resulting in a Government investigation in January into why energy bills were not falling despite a drop in wholesale costs.
The “big six” energy firms claim they buy wholesale gas and oil months in advance, so absolutely totally cannot pass these savings on to consumers straightaway. And we all remember how they didn’t pass on any earlier increases in the wholesale costs as well…
There has been some movement, even in standard tariffs, with “token” price cuts that reduced annual bills by around £35 a year. However, research by our friends over at Which!!!, used hedging models to allow for such short- and long-term forward planning, and they think there is still scope for lower prices, suggesting that gas costs could drop by at least 8.8% and that a standard electricity tariff could fall by 10%
So if you’re looking to switch your energy bills, keep your eye out for a collective bandwagon upon which to jump, and if your fix is finishing soon, watch out for, possibly, even lower prices on the horizon.
Switching energy bills is supposed to be getting easier for consumers, so they can get the best deals, but it is clear that this isn’t the case as confusing tariffs and poorly presented billing information is stopping too many people from getting a package that is right for them.
So says a report by the CentreForum think-tank, compiled for comparethemarket.com. Of course, a lot of price comparison sites aren’t helping either, as they’ve been helping themselves, rather than you.
Despite Ofgem’s efforts, switching rates in the UK have been on the decline because the whole process is just too complicated. The report shows that the biggest problem for energy customers is the “deliberately confusing way that suppliers present information”.
Bills are presented in a way that is too complex and tariff descriptions were “buried in cryptic terminology, making like-for-like comparisons extremely difficult”.
The report invented a new word, saying that this ”confusopoly” is preventing fair and effective competition in the energy market, which of course, is leading everyone into being “ripped off”.
CentreForum think that Ofgem’s new Tariff Comparison Rate (TCR) should be given the chop or, at least, better communicated, because it could be “misinterpreted as an accurate comparison tool for all consumers” rather than the average customer. They’d also like to see a standardised Tariff Information Label, all put on one singular page, to allow people to make faster, better informed choices about their supplier.
The report’s author and associate director for economic policy at CentreForum, Tom Papworth, said: “The obfuscatory way that information is presented by energy companies acts as a significant barrier to switching supplier. Customers frequently complain about receiving too much information and having too much choice, rather than too little. Bills are complex and like-for-like comparisons difficult.”
“An overhaul of some of Ofgem’s Retail Market Review recommendations as we suggest would therefore clearly benefit consumers.”
Comparethemarket head of energy James Padmore said: “The report underlines the fact that the energy market is broken. Consumers struggle to make sense of energy bills and too many remain on uncompetitive tariffs because they are unsure of how to compare deals based on their current usage and expenditure.”
“We estimate that if everyone moved to the best energy tariff for them, the ‘energy dividend’ back into the pockets of UK consumers would be in the region of £4 billion – an indication of the overpayments caused by automatically rolling on to standard tariffs and not reviewing bills. Consumers need to be able to compare tariffs like for like and make informed decisions about the best deal for them. The report we have commissioned clearly shows that, at present, the energy industry falls woefully short of this requirement.”
This is the fourth largest payment made to Ofgem, who will be passing the money on to Citizens Advice. Eon have already coughed-up £400,000 to affected customers.
So what happened? Well, under Ofgem’s rules, suppliers have to give customers 30 days’ notice of price increases, so that they can switch to another provider before the rises come into play. Exit fees and higher tariffs should not be levied if consumers have said that they’re going to leave for another company.
These errors from Eon relate to their price hikes in January 2013 and January 2014. They’ve paid back an average of £8 and £12 to around 40,000 customers already, but that’s not good enough. Of course, Eon have already been fined £12m for violating sales rules.
Sarah Harrison, Ofgem’s senior partner in charge of enforcement, said it was “vital that suppliers play by the rules so customers are encouraged to engage in the market.”
“It is important that Eon has repaid potentially affected customers and co-operated with the investigation,” she added; “However, it’s absolutely unacceptable that Eon failed to provide these vital customer protections yet again and this persistent failure is the reason for the high penalty.”
The next government, whoever that might be, need to commit to energy efficiency, and not muck about by being weak wristed, like we’ve seen thus far, in a bid to stop UK homes from losing money, needlessly.
That’s according to a new Which!!! report, which says that the UK’s housing stock continues to be among Europe’s least energy-efficient thanks to poor insulation. In ‘A Local Approach to Energy Efficiency’, the watchdog says that Government figures from December show (up to) 5.4 million homes still don’t have their cavities filled and up to 7.4 million still need their lofts sorted out.
On top of this, Age UK reckon that the NHS spends £1.36 billion every year on treating illnesses caused by – and made worse by – cold houses.
Which!!! would like to see the country adopting a long-term approach, which would be funded in part by a levy on energy suppliers, and then put into a pot where funds can be allocated to local authorities. The report also calls for an overhaul of the Green Deal, after it transpired that only 399 plans had been taken on (on average) per month since the launch of the project.
Bigwig at Which!!!, Richard Lloyd, said: “With millions of homes still not insulated, energy efficiency is a collective failure of successive governments. The next Government must grab this issue by the scruff of the neck and commit to an aggressive energy efficiency strategy as soon as it takes power.”
“We want to see radical improvements to the roll out, funding and take-up of energy efficiency measures so people can enjoy warmer homes, lower bills and better health.”
Ed Miliband – a man who looks like someone stuck a nose on an uncooked gammon steak – is pledging to make our energy bills drop and he wants to give Ofgem more power to railroad energy companies. It is thought that this will be worth £100 to each household.
The leader of the opposition has already vowed to introduce an energy bill price cap, which will freeze bills until 2017. Labour reckons this will cut annual bills by £120, but with this new proposal, savings would be nearly double. Big talk.
Of course, this is all dependent on Labour winning the general election and, seeing as that doesn’t seem likely, Miliband may as well promise a robot sex maid for every house in the universe. On the chance that Labour do win, they will give Ofgem new legal duties to review energy prices and the power to order reductions in price if they find energy companies aren’t passing on savings.
Labour have promised that this will be fast-tracked so end overcharging by The Big Six. Of course, the energy companies have just dropped their prices, which makes all this chat lack the impact it would have last year.
It has been reported that Miliband is going to say: “What better evidence do we need of the chronic overcharging, the broken market and the ripoffs being faced by millions of families and businesses across Britain?”
“The vital link between the wealth of our nation and working families has been broken. It’s been 18 months since I announced the next Labour government would freeze energy bills – so they can only go down and not up – until 2017 while we reset this broken market. In those months we first heard loud protests from the big six energy firms and their PR guys in the government. Then we saw prices continue to rocket upwards, unchecked by the government.”
“Now something else is happening. The costs of energy are tumbling down, not because of anything the government or the big six energy firms have done, but because of global changes in oil and gas supply. The cost of energy to the big six firms fell by 20%. Your gas bill fell by between 1 and 5%. Your electricity bill probably hasn’t fallen at all.”
“Even the PR guys for the big six – David Cameron and George Osborne – admit this is a problem. But they have not acted and the whole country knows why. It’s because they will never stand up to powerful interests and they never stand up for you.”
It is a popular topic though, with chancellor George Osborne promising to watch The Big Six “like a hawk”, and no-one cares about what the LibDems think.
Scottish Power have been slapped with a sales ban after they failed to meet Ofgem’s customer service targets. The energy provider was told to clear all their outstanding Energy Ombudsman decisions regarding customer complaints, but they didn’t.
They were asked to answer customers’ calls more quickly, reduce a backlog of bills and sort out outstanding ombudsman rulings. As such, the 12-day sales ban means the company can’t engage in “proactive sales” from today.
The energy company said that they are “committed to delivering the best service possible and treating our customers fairly”.
Sarah Harrison, Ofgem’s senior partner in charge of enforcement, said: “A sales ban illustrates the difficulties Scottish Power is having in delivering the levels of service customers deserve. While Ofgem’s targets have driven significant improvements in Scottish Power’s performance, we remain very concerned about how customers are being treated.”
Scottish Power say: ”We have successfully delivered two of the targets. In relation to the target of having zero ombudsman remedies over 28 days, we cleared 2,575 cases during November and, at 1 December, the Ombudsman confirmed that we have achieved the zero target.”
“However, subsequently it was identified that 30 cases had been closed incorrectly. We sincerely apologise to these customers for these errors. The cases were immediately fixed on discovery. In line with our original voluntary commitment and with the agreement of Ofgem, we will now stop outbound selling from 4 March until 15 March.”
Sometimes, businesses are so bad it is almost literally beyond belief, and smaller energy supplier Spark Energy has now been fined by Ofgem for falling squarely in that category. The crime? On top of sky-high charges and inaccurate billing systems, Spark Energy simply ignored customers’ requests to leave the supplier and just continued to bill them. Astounding.
An Ofgem investigation found that up to 29,000 households were left facing “eye-watering” inaccurately high bills and “staggeringly bad” customer service and that customers were “prevented” from leaving over a three year period between June 2010 and May 2013.
Many of Spark’s customers were tenants in rented accommodation who were signed up automatically by letting agents, and who then found themselves facing the highest pay-monthly tariff on the market. Ofgem’s £250,000 fine also took accounts of billing technologies that were “not reliable and generated inaccurate bills”, and yet, a bit like Hotel California, guests at Spark Energy could never leave.
Or could they. It gets even better as it appears some select few customers were permitted to escape Spark’s clutches- but only if they were a customer Spark didn’t want, and then they were switched against their will and without their knowledge. Ofgem documents suggest that only 705 customers were able to leave the supplier. These were customers in debt and between August 2011 and May 2013 Spark used switching websites itself and signed these customers up for different suppliers without their knowledge.
“Customers would not know the transfer had been completed or the identity of the new supplier until they received a welcome letter or email from the new supplier,” Ofgem said.
And if all that weren’t enough, Spark also failed to return cash to customers who were in credit in good time and didn’t deal with complaints properly. The company has agreed to pay £250,000 to Citizens Advice in lieu of a larger financial penalty after admitting to breaching a string of regulations.
Ofgem said: “From June 2010 to May 2013, Spark blanket objected to consumers switching their supply contract to another provider. As a result, consumers were unable to… choose a cheaper supplier (which would have been possible for pay monthly customers as Spark was the most expensive supplier during the period).”
“It is clear from the complaints evidence that some customers found their experience with Spark at the time extremely frustrating,” Ofgem finished in a totally obvious statement.
A spokesman for Spark Energy said, inadequately: “We welcome the manner in which Ofgem has dealt with these issues. We’ve learned valuable lessons from this process and recognise there were things we should have done differently, and we apologise for these failings.”
He went on: “However we’re pleased Ofgem has recognised the progress we’ve made over the past 21 months to transform our levels of customer service in this complex and difficult market.” We’re just surprised they have any customers left- unless they have all tried unsuccessfully to leave too…
The regulator is coming under fire from the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee and, even though there’s been falls in bill prices and new price caps, MPs aren’t impressed.
The trouble is that new rules from the regulator aren’t tough enough and that those that manage the pipes and wires that dole out gas and electricity are still raking it in and not passing enough savings on to the customers.
Committee chairman Tim Yeo says: “Ofgem’s chief executive told us that we would have to wait eight years to see whether value for money was being delivered for bill payers. This is too long for hard-pressed consumers to wait. Ofgem must get its act together and scrutinise these near monopolies more effectively. Simpler charging methodologies are needed to strengthen the market’s ability to scrutinise costs and increase the pressure for greater cost-saving efficiencies.”
“Barriers preventing smaller players from entering the market must be removed to drive down costs for consumers.”
Energy companies pay network costs to use the aforementioned pipes and wires for distribution and transmission purposes and they are applied to bills. These costs amount to, roughly, 23% of a gas and electricity dual fuel bill. To sort this out, Ofgem introduced the RIIO system, designed to control network costs.
However, the committee have said that there’s ‘clear evidence’ that the network companies were coining it in far more than expected. The committee said that “this suggests that the targets and incentives set by Ofgem are too low, barriers to market entry are high and that Ofgem needs to monitor RIIO more effectively and to equip RIIO with stronger, corrective measures.”
“While we recognise that the new RIIO framework is an improvement on its predecessor, Ofgem has not yet created the conditions for the market to thrive and provide consumers with best value for money.”
So what’s the solution? Well, MPs would like to see a thorough study into replacing this system that is simpler and national, as the current one has a variety of regional charges and codes which make it more difficult to compare prices across networks. The committee would like Ofgem, and the Government, to start taking this seriously.
Of course, only last week, the Competition and Markets Authority said that they think we’re all being overcharged to the tune of £234 a year for our gas and electricity.
The owner of British Gas, Centrica, have said that they’ve had a big fall in profits thanks to nice weather and the drop in oil prices. Seeing as they stuck our bills up, seemingly needlessly for so long, it’d be funny if they expected anyone to feel sorry for them.
Centrica’s full-year operating profits fell by 35% to £1.75bn, which means that British Gas profits from residential business fell by 23% to £439m. Isn’t it awful when you’re still making a profit, but not as much as you normally do?.
Giving everyone the doe-eyes, Centrica said the price of oil and gas had forced them to write off £1.4bn from their balance sheet and that they were going to have to put off capital investment in the North Sea. They added: ”Other companies are doing the same thing. It’s difficult, but it is what we have to do to position the company sustainably.”
Oh, BOO HOO.
On Radio 4, Centrica honcho Iain Conn, said that “2014 was not the year we had planned it to be”, adding that his company continued “to face a number of challenges as we enter 2015, particularly the significant further reductions in wholesale oil and gas prices since the middle of December”.
Quick reminder. The company still have £1.75bn in profit, so when they’re complaining about people’s bills being £10 lower than they were 2014, like it’s our fault, don’t feel too bad. It seems, as a nation, we don’t, as for the last couple of years, British Gas have been losing a lot of customers, with 368,000 leaving them in 2014. The reason customers left? British Gas whacking everyone’s bills up.
So there you have it. British Gas’ owners want you to feel bad for them. If you want to kick them while they’re ‘down’, then here’s how to switch your energy account and get with a company that’s less emo.
A couple of days ago, we pointed out that there’s a lot of people losing money because The Big Six energy companies are ripping you off. Well, according to the Competition and Markets Authority, over 95% of households in the UK are indeed paying too much.
They’ve said that everyone could save £234 a year by switching their supply of gas and electricity.
As ever, the ones being hammered hardest are the poor and old, because they either think switching is impossible, or that it’ll be too difficult to do or they haven’t even considered it at all. With the Big Six charging the highest prices and not likely to help you out, then people are being stung via their ‘standard tariffs’.
The watchdog is going to continue to look into this in a bid to find out why people don’t shop around and whether or not the Big Sixers are actively trying to keep everyone “disengaged so as to retain them on high tariffs”.
The CMA are also looking at the possibility that the energy companies are ‘discriminating’ against loyal customers (or indeed, those disengaged) and weighing-up whether the businesses might “exploit and influence” the behaviour of their customers to their own advantage.
With more than 90% of UK households signed-up with the Big Six firms – British Gas, SSE, ScottishPower, E.On, EDF Energy and Npower – this is of course, a big problem. Many customers are with this shower after companies inherited them after the energy market was privatised over a decade ago.
How To Switch
If you want to switch accounts, then you can use an Ofgem-approved price comparison site. Find out about those by starting here. Before doing that, get in touch with your current supplier and ask for an ‘annual summary’, so you’ll have all the info you’ll need to get a better deal. You can also call the Energy Saving Advice Service on 0300 123 1234.
The Big Six energy companies are a pain in everyone’s backside, despite the fact they’ve lowered everyone’s bills by a small amount.
However, there’s more they could do, as it looks like somewhere in advance of 13 million homes are losing £200 per year because they’re on variable rate energy tariffs. That’s billions per year, when you tot it up.
With these deals, people are paying out more than they need to. If they switched to a fixed rate deal or changed to a smaller energy company, you could be saving as much as £250 per year.
These figures are coming to light as the inquiry by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) continues, due to be published soon. It won’t surprise a soul when we all find out that the Big Six are continually not passing on savings to their customers.
This estimate comes from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which is being referred to as the £2.7billion rip-off. Today, they’re launching the ’Power to Switch’ campaign, in a bid to get people to move away from tariffs that are needlessly expensive.
Of course, one of the simplest ways of switching is to use a price comparison site (preferably one that has been approved by Ofgem) and you can be saving money with half a dozen clicks. Before you do that though, you’ll need your ’annual summary’, which you can request from your energy supplier.
That means, when you go to the comparison site, you’ll have all the correct information about things like annual usage, your tariff and all that, so it can work out which new deal would be best for you and highlight the amount you could be saving. Or, if you prefer, you can phone the Energy Saving Advice Service on 0300 123 1234. If you’re doing it online, then start here.