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Don’t hold your breath for better energy bills

Paper bills

Ofgem has finally forced improvements to energy bills, but has the regulator really taken things far enough? Will the bills sent out by reluctant energy suppliers be easier for us to understand?

I don’t know about you, but ‘calorific value’ is something I’d expect to see printed on a food label.

Equally, ‘volume correction’ could easily be a button on my stereo. So it seemed out of place when these phrases cropped up on a gas bill (alongside the completely unfathomable ‘kWh@p’).

Plus, in apparent defiance of mathematical logic, my supplier (Scottish Power) had also decided to use a minus sign to show my account was in credit.

When we asked gobbledygook watchdog, The Plain English Campaign (PEC), to run its expert eye over all the big energy suppliers’ bills last year, it uncovered a world of confusing and unexplained jargon.

We’ve used the PEC’s findings – and other research – to put pressure on energy suppliers and the regulator, Ofgem. Bills should be clear and easy to understand, so that they serve their key purpose of helping us take control of our consumption and costs.

Energy bills are improving – slowly

Thankfully, our hard work is starting to pay off. As of 24 June, suppliers are required to send out – in addition to regular bills – annual statements showing any premiums or discounts you’ve received and any that you could get. They’ll also contain advice on how to switch supplier.

I’ll hold judgement until I see the improved bills, but I do have an initial concern. The new rules only say what sort of information needs to be provided, rather than how it should be presented.

It’s absolutely essential that each supplier makes their bills as clear and straightforward as possible. It’d be great, for example, to see all suppliers follow the lead of Npower and get their bills approved by the PEC’s Crystal Mark for Clarity scheme.

Why can’t bills be standardised?

Of course, it’d be much easier if all companies produced identical bills. To me, there’s absolutely no reason why all energy bills can’t be standardised under an approved easy-to-understand format.

In fact, nine in ten Which? members agree with the statement ‘all energy companies’ bills should be based on a standard format and provide the same type of information’.

If energy companies really want a competitive market that rewards them for being better than their rivals, they should welcome a situation where all customers have the  information they need in a format they can understand with ease.

Aly123 says:
2 July 2010

Bills should be clearer – and lower as well. Not sure how I’m supposed to work out what I spend without being a maths PHD !

I afraid its what you get when you put key former public industries into the hands of privatised business.

Tariff names seem designed to confuse "Online Tariff v5" "Online saver Tariff v5" …. especially when trying to compare suppliers.
And when you do switch the contract sent does not mention the tariff you are switching to anywhere so it is difficult to dispute when the supplier gets it wrong.

I am still waiting for my first electricty bill despite having signed up with a new provider last December. Some 3rd party organisation who monitiors overall usage disagreed with my closing reading even though my previous provider accepted it and sent me a final bill.

The new provider hasnt been able to sort it out and is making all sorts of excuses despite the fact they also disputed my gas reading and got the initial starter reading wrong. They are allowing me to submit monthly readings but they wont accept any payment on account or even take a monthly DD so I will face a large initial bill

Colin Chaston says:
27 July 2010

Who pays for the Energy Watchdogs — the utility companies? The reason I ask is that EVERY energy supplier has its own price for the "first X" usage and then the "rest", and these differ for about 15 regions around the UK, and EVERY supplier difffers charging for that region. WHY do I pay more than London or less than Manchester (examples) but another supplier could be the other way around. Surely E-On and Scottish Power and N Power are using the same pipes cables and have the same distribution costs, so how can they all change their tarriffs when the neighbouring road goes into another "region"?
And then you have 5 different tarrifs to choose from and different ways of working out the bill from units on your meter to Killowatt hours!
Although still a monopoly in each Region, water companies charge different rates. Why should I pay more in my road as I am in Southern Water, than the person in the next road who is Thames Water. Does the water supply or sewerage split at the junction of the road?

Water companies and electrical charge per unit on your meter reading, soi why not Gas? Is it really difficult to convert to charging per unit on the meter?

Come on Watchdogs! Are you in the pocket of utitiliy companies or are your really for the consumer?? Perhaps having to justify your jobs in times of government cut backs may now be the time to show you can make an impact protecting the consumer

I would like to see all suppliers using the charging system whereby the first wedge of energy units consumed are at a low level, with subsequent use being charged at a progressively increasing rate. At the moment, the more profligate the user, the cheaper each unit of energy becomes. This wuld greatly assist OAPs and the people who are careful with their energy usage and encourage thrift – we are after all being asked by the Government to restrict our energy use – and the supplies won’t last forever.

Perhaps someone can explain to me how it is that with the plethora of suppliers, each vieing for custom and having to satisfy their shareholders, we can’t have a single body, properly audited to ensure there isn’t a huge profit motive and which can invest sensibly in securing the future supply of energy? The constant entreaties to switch suppliers is tiresome and needless – it isn’t like changing you butcher or your milkman. Gas, electricity and water all enter properties in exactly the same way.

A dictionary definition

Conversation n 1. the interchange through speech of information, ideas etc; spoken communication – Collins

Why is it that there has been no response to any of the posts? Where is the conversation? Which? represents consumers. Where is their voice?

Hello David – Conversation does not only mean that we’ll converse with you, it’s also for us to set the debate and for commenters like yourself to have a conversation among yourselves. We’ll reply and add our own thoughts when appropriate – such as here https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/could-you-be-hit-with-higher-energy-bills/ and here https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/no-ones-getting-the-broadband-speed-they-pay-for/ – but we’re trying to find a balance of allowing you guys to have your opinions, and us to express ours.

This conversation was also posted at the beginning of July, so many commenters have moved on to more current articles, so you may find more luck there. Keep on getting involved =)

I’m afraid you don’t understand the true meaning of "conversation". The links you gave simply point to you setting a subject and then sitting back and waiting for subscribers to do the rest. It’s indicative of the approach that while there’s a "reply" link in my post, no such link is in yours. A proper "conversation" such as the Which? Forums have allows this.
It also appears that you and your colleagues are neither part of the Consumers’ Association’s experts nor their Customer Support staff. This doubling up of effort simply to encourage dialogue between subscribers is a waste of both your time and ours. In your sister system "Connect" there is no advice/response from the CA – I wonder what the staff in the CA think when presented at the end of the month with the contents of both of these trial sites.
I re-iterate; put as much effort into modernising the Forum interface and publicise with the same (to coin a word) verve as you have here and the CA will save a great deal of money.

Oh dear.
I find that the Which? team are very GOOD at running these boards as an open conversation. Perhaps we should remember that whatever their title, these boards are in fact DISCUSSION boards.
Going back to the topic, and bearing in mind Patrick’s point about this being an old thread now, in my mind the Utilities should never have been Privatised: Thatcher was obsessed with selling off everything that WE owned as taxpayer in order to benefit her cronies, the private financiers and shareholders.
However, a minority of the electorate voted her into power and as such she had the (legal) right to sell them off and having done so the mess that we have is precisely what could have been expected from competing privatised utility companies.
The lack of clarity is a way of grabbing (or keeping) customers precisely BECAUSE you can’t be sure what deal you are getting until it’s too late.
I absolutely agree that standardized bills should be a legal requirement, but I can’t see any government bringing that law in because their would be outrage from the companies and their shareholders as competition would effectively be ended when people could understand what they were signing up to.

Most energy bills are confusing but British Gas are the worst.!
I am a book-keeper and used to filling in forms and doing accounts, but British gas bills have been done in such a way as to confuse I’m sure on purpose.
When I phoned to query parts of my bill, the person I spoke to couldn’t understand it either.
It took 50 minutes on the phone to get an answer.