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Energy switching. We are told it is a shrewd financial move that could save up to £300 on the average annual bill. But then there’s the hassle factor — can we actually be bothered to do it?
I got around to it last autumn when I rolled off a fixed-price deal with Scottish Power and wanted to insulate myself against the expense of ending up on a pricey “standard rate” tariff.
Yet I wish I had not bothered. The money I saved on bills has far from compensated me for the stress of a switching process gone badly wrong.
After telling Scottish Power I was going to switch providers, my current account was cleared out weeks before Christmas with a rogue £768 direct debit for my “final bill” — 10 times higher than the usual monthly payment for our two-bedroom flat.
In attempting to get my money back and find out how on earth this could have happened, I reluctantly became the middleman as the old and new supplier traded blame and argued about the accuracy of meter readings.
After five months and nearly 100 emails, it has emerged this week that my final “bill” was in fact a credit of several hundred pounds. Ha!
Seeing as switching is touted by politicians and the industry as the “silver bullet” against rising energy prices, I wanted to know how common botched switches actually are. However, the data are surprisingly sparse.
The latest figures from the Energy Ombudsman show an average of two transfer complaints upheld per 100,000 energy customers. Yet a much higher number (about 15 people per 100,000) have complaints upheld about bills. Around 8 per cent of these could potentially relate to switching (problems with final bills, opening or closing meter readings and failure to refund a credit balance).
The ombudsman only deals with disputes that remain unresolved after eight weeks. I didn’t bother getting them involved, as I couldn’t bear the thought of telling another party about my problems from scratch. So my switching drama won’t be recorded in its statistics.
Ofgem, the energy regulator, collates complaints against suppliers. It does not categorise these — although it will from July.
I get the strong sense that regulators or consumer groups do not want to publicise problems with switching in case they deter people from shopping around. But unless we shine a light, how can any lessons be learned? Here are a few takeaways from my own electrifying experience.
I used a price comparison website to find a better deal, unticking various boxes to view deals from smaller suppliers (lesson one). Bulb, a small green energy supplier, came out top.
The online switch was easy — but my problems started with the final meter reading. If I had taken digital photographs of my meters at this point, this would have been a useful weapon in my subsequent complaints. Alas, I did not.
I provided readings to Bulb, my new energy supplier, online. It contacted the old supplier to arrange the switch. Yet my final bill was prepared using wildly inaccurate estimated readings. Why?
The first I heard of it was when the £768 bill arrived with the stern advice: “Do not cancel your direct debit”.
“Only a factory could have used that much gas,” said the Scottish Power call centre, promising that my account would be frozen so no payment could be taken. I supplied yet more meter readings. But who had supplied the rogue estimates?
After raising a complaint with both suppliers, they eventually pinned the blame on “third party network companies” who verified the meter readings. Their best guess was that our Economy 7 meter was at odds with typical consumption patterns, hence they had used an estimate instead. However, I’ve switched three times in the past decade without this being an issue. And why hadn’t either supplier queried the rogue estimates or bothered to contact me?
Then, in the run-up to Christmas, I had a text from my bank. I was about to go overdrawn as the entire payment had been swiped from my account. Yikes.
Nothing we can do, said Scottish Power. Contact your bank to get the money back. I did — and my bank refunded the payment in less than an hour. But I was fuming.
At this point, I told both companies that I was an FT journalist — not because I expected special treatment, but because I wanted a thorough investigation into these errors, which could have caused untold financial distress for cost-conscious households switching to cut their bills.
Scottish Power accepted the payment mishap was due to human error on its part. In recalculating the final amount, a further billing error cropped up. This week, it sent my revised “final bill” which turned out to be a cheque for several hundred pounds, as I was actually in credit.
It is ironic that this settlement has occurred in the same week that Ofgem moved to stop “bill shock” by imposing a 12-month limit on how far back energy companies can go when settling billing disputes.
Ofgem also promises to make the switching process better for consumers by targeting one-day switching by the end of 2020. This would involve a huge tightening of existing industry systems, and one central database. I wish them luck.
But I am still snarling at the amount of effort I have had to put in as a consumer in chasing redress and dealing with both suppliers, despite the fact that both had signed up to the voluntary Energy Switch Guarantee.
Even so, both companies have apologised. Scottish Power has offered me £175 in compensation and Bulb a further £15.
I have decided to donate this to the Hackney Winter Night Shelter, a charity that works very hard to keep homeless people in London alive, well fed and warm.
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