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Energy suppliers must take action to help customers

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As the nights draw in colder and darker, millions of UK households will be turning up their heating and switching on their lights. And millions will be paying unfair energy bills for it. So what needs to be done about this?

There’s a big problem with energy companies. We have had a two-year long Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) inquiry into the energy market. Finally it was revealed that customers on expensive tariffs collectively overpaid by £1.4bn for the energy they used.

Those people account for over half of all energy customers. They aren’t heating empty mansions for the fun of it; they’re simply paying way over the odds for the energy they use. They’re completely disengaged with the energy market, and paying top prices for an unfit standard variable tariff (SVT).

Unfair energy bills

Around 16 million people – over 58% of the ‘Big Six’s’ energy customers are on these SVTs deals – among the most expensive on offer. The problem is that many people on SVTs aren’t being prompted to look at better deals.

Attempts have been made to engage with energy customers in the past. These include initiatives such as printing the cheapest tariff information on bills and introducing customer charters to help more customers with billing and service. However, without proper trialing and testing these methods haven’t addressed the problem. The biggest energy companies continue to have too many customers stuck on the most expensive deals.

Recent Which? research found that the gap between a SVT price paid with the Big Six is, on average, £111 more than their cheapest tariffs.

Some of you will know the game all too well – unless you keep a beady eye on your meter readings and your tariff deadlines, when your energy company whacks up your tariff price it can be easy to end up paying more that you should on your bills.

Keeping bills down

So we’re demanding to know how energy companies will step up and take action for their customers this winter,  and show that they are taking the market inquiry findings seriously and are committed to doing the right thing by their many customers.

Our Fair Energy Prices campaign is challenging energy companies to publish their plans to right this wrong by 31 January 2017, as well as take immediate action to help their customers this winter.


If you’re worried about keeping your bills down this winter, take a look at our top tips to help you get the most out of your heating and avoid being overcharged by your energy provider.

So, do you think energy suppliers should be doing more to help their customers off unfair energy bills? Can our challenge stir them into long-awaited action?

Comments

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This piece was published 2 years ago and pointed out what could happen with IoT. And we have seen massed attacks by IoT now. And a new variant has been spotted. The idea that profit-driven firms care a fig for security seems to be well proven.

Which? perhaps needs to consider if this is a field it can usefully be in. Whilst it is nice to feature all the latest electronic advances perhaps consumers need to be better informed of the Trojan horse aspect of IoT

securityintelligence.com/data-protection-in-the-internet-of-things/”

Data Protection and the IoT

The estimated growth of this new trend in the market is expected to hit between 26 billion and 30 billion devices by 2020, with an estimated market worth of between $6 trillion and $9 trillion.
To put this in context, the following are some interesting implications (including ones concerning data protection) that relate to the explosion of these interconnected devices:
These devices will constantly generate huge amounts of data, so we will need faster networks, larger storage capabilities (likely in the cloud) and more bandwidth to support the growth in Internet traffic.
There is not yet an open ecosystem to host these devices to make them interoperable like there is on Microsoft Windows, Apple iOS and Google Android ecosystems.
Vendors are creating private networks for interoperability among their own products, but these are incompatible with others. This creates a major challenge for integration across multiple solutions.
The current Internet protocol (IPv4) cannot handle the growth in the number of interconnected devices on the Internet. This will trigger the need to switch to a more scalable protocol, such as IPv6.

Security and the IoT
With this in mind, you may be concerned about how to deal with security in the IoT. The following are several security challenges that will need to be faced as the IoT gains steam:
If we already have trouble today keeping our computers, smartphones and tablets updated with the latest version of code, won’t it be a nightmare trying to keep these millions of devices updated and free of security bugs?
With the amount of data these devices will generate, how do we navigate the sea of data to identify suspicious traffic over the network? What if we miss incidents because we are unable to identify them?
Proprietary and enclosed implementations such as those that vendors are creating today make it harder to find hidden or unknown zero-day attacks.
Even though IPv6 has been present for some time, this protocol has not yet been fully perfected. As with everything that is new, we have to handle new and unknown weaknesses. That being said, the way we apply security controls over IPv4 may not be useful or relevant for protecting IPv6.”

It’s just as well our brains are not all connected together isn’t it. Perhaps someone foresaw the consequences when designing us. Telepathy could have been a very dangerous property.

The Internet of Things is certainly an area I’m interested in and I know there’s interest here. Perhaps there’s a seperate conversation we’ve had. Here’s one IoT story you might be interested in: http://www.which.co.uk/news/2015/08/which-probe-uncovers-hive-heating-app-data-risk-407275/

“British Gas has updated its Hive Active Heating app after a Which? investigation revealed it was sending out user details unencrypted. Our probe into smart thermostat systems revealed that the Hive app was sending data that included what times heating was set to go on and off, along with labels such as ‘awake’ and ‘away’, unencrypted – so someone who had tapped into your wi-fi would be able to see what was sent. It also showed the distance our user needed to be from her home before she was messaged to ask if she wanted her heating on.”

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Telepathy, eh? I like the sound of that. As long as I’m the only one with it, you understand…

I just knew you were going to say that, Ian.

I aim to please 🙂

I think Alexander must have felt like that when he was the only one who had a telephone 🙂

Hi Duncan,

I’ve been doing a bit of digging on this. Our Head of IT Security told me that you are correct: we aren’t encrypting everything.

We do ensure that all pages where sensitive information is collected or displayed such as login, ‘my account’ and payment pages, are protected.

However, the Convo site itself is not fully secured due to there being mixed content on the page (some sensitive, some not). This can cause SSL certificate checks to fail.

Many sites have moved to an ‘always SSL’ approach. This encrypts all pages and would be our approach if there weren’t a mixed content issue. While technically not more secure than Convo, this approach does provide constant reassurance to the user through browser icons that the site is secured throughout their use of it.

He is going to discuss this with Dev Ops to try to identify what content is breaking the browser certificate check, and to see if we can resolve the issue.

We should stress, nonetheless, that although the certificate is not complete, this does not mean that encryption isn’t in use. Convo does use encryption for all sensitive information, and to reiterate, the causes of the certificate check failure are simply non-sensitive parts of the page.

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I’m guessing here, Duncan, but I think when Patrick (T) said “This piece was published 2 years ago” he was not referring to the article you quoted but to the extract that followed in his comment. It would still be interesting to know the source of his extract though.

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The source is in the comment – shorn of https which should automatically be added when you paste it in your browser.

securityintelligence.com/data-protection-in-the-internet-of-things

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What are the energy companies doing for the elderly, disabled and most vulnerable in our communities, are they ensuring that their homes are insulated, that their energy bills are not costing these people the Earth to heat their homes? Are the bosses investing in their homes more than their pockets? Many homes are still not draught proof and double-glazed, and that can very easily be checked out with thermal imaging cameras.
All new homes should be Code Level 5 or even 6 by now. Let’s make cold homes history!
No-one should die through lack of warm homes now. We should all be able to heat and eat.

The building regulations ensure that all new homes of every kind have greatly enhanced insulation values, Stephanie, but the highest standards are only available in private developments and their prices are significantly higher [but their running costs considerably lower]. All private rented property [in England and Wales – Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own schemes] will have to have at least an E rating on the Energy Performance Certificate with effect from 1 April 2018.

I agree with you that a great deal more needs to be done to bring older properties up to higher standards. Many of these are in rural areas with electricity but no mains gas so are reliant on oil, LPG, or solid fuel for their heating; under your proposal, who would contribute to the cost of better insulation?

I have argued many times in Which? Conversation for a national programme to upgrade the older parts of the UK’s housing stock to make it more energy efficient, obviously for the reasons you have given but also to reduce energy demand and its consequences. There are various grant and assistance schemes that offer modest help but the uptake has been low because they have required too much from the residents of such housing and required a standard that was not realistic for the type of property and the people living in it. A more sensible approach is required where better insulation, draught-proofing, heating controls, and other measures in various forms are provided and installed but not necessarily in a comprehensive scheme that is burdensome and unaffordable. Older terrace houses of solid wall construction but no self-contained roof voids require different solutions to a 1930’s semi-detached house or a former Council house of non-standard construction, so a ‘one scheme fits all’ approach will not do. The big energy companies are already contributing substantial sums to the government for energy efficiency improvements through levies on users’ bills, but this is unfair because many of the people paying the levy are struggling themselves or have hard-to-heat homes. I see home energy efficiency as an investment that is as important for the government to fund as many other projects; it would improve the quality of life of many people and relieve the NHS and welfare services of some pressure, especially over the Winter months. Reforming the Winter fuel payment scheme could also make a big difference where it is needed most.

I wouldn’t consider an ‘E rating’ energy performance as adequate since most privately built new homes are ‘C’ or even ‘B’ rated for some apartments.

This is a minimum standard and presumably reflects the difficulty in dealing with existing properties.

Eric Flegg says:
9 November 2016

Why is Bristol Energy not on your list??

As in most things ‘economic’ someone has to pay. So, if the energy field is levelled and people on low incomes are helped, the present low tariffs will have to subsidise the change as energy company profits may not be able to fund such an idea. The current ‘low’ tariffs will therefore rise.
Tariffs are increasing anyway due to the economic situation and fixed tariffs are uneconomic to get out of to try and take advantage of any slightly lower price that may be around. Investment in low energy homes including adapting existing housing stock and putting people that are on extortionately high tariffs onto lower ones would be a better option.

What is wrong with charging everyone the same for their energy? Some would pay less and others more for their electricity and gas. As a society, should we care more about people or how the energy industry would prefer to run the show?

Raw energy comes from different sources and costs different amounts. Its price fluctuates on world markets so the way different companies choose to buy – spot prices, forward buying – affects the cost. Energy companies have different overheads from each other. The use of the distribution network depends upon how far your energy is transmitted. The way you pay affects the suppliers costs…….

And who decides what the price of this energy should be?

Lots of reasons. The same as why lots of products have different prices – from food, houses, travel, domestic appliances…………

However, if you want an artificial system determined by the state then you could have common pricing, but like any other artificial cross-subsidised system it would be abused for profit, for political and no doubt for other reasons. I’d prefer to be able to choose the best deal that I can get on an open market. Before the trump card is played, I’d also want those who are genuinely vulnerable to helped; that is where we should be putting in more effort.

The problem is that your cheap deal (and mine) are at the expense of others paying more. It is perfectly possible that we could have a standard price for energy yet take advantage of competition elsewhere within the industry.

Proposals have been made to abolish artificial “cheap deals” – many fixed price fixed term contracts that seem to be subsidised by standard variable tariffs. So pay the fair price based on what it costs. That will still leave time of day tariffs at different prices and other tariffs providing they reflect costs. However with the plethora of energy suppliers that all keeps competition in play. Most have access to all available tariffs and can choose the most appropriate – often the cheapest. Why should we lose that freedom of choice? Do we want everything else to be based on a single price – housing and food for example which are far bigger spends for everyone?

Rather than chase something that is most unlikely to happen, laudable though it me seem to some, I’d rather chase ways of setting tariffs that are achievable and produce benefits to the consumer.

Presumably anyone who buys something cheaper than someone else can be said to have achieved it”at the expense of others”. If most have the same opportunity to access the cheaper deal – whether energy, food, appliances, or whatever – and are not a “favoured elite” then I don’t see that being a relevant argument. Those who are unable (as opposed to unwilling) to access open deals on their own should be given assistance.

My reason for focusing on energy is that gas and electricity are the same, whichever supplier we choose. For as long as I can remember there have been complaints about those on prepayment meters (generally those who are having problems) paying more than those who pay in arrears. Something is finally going to happen. I supported the privatisation of energy (and still do) but one of the problems has been the way in which many customers have ended up paying more than those who monitor costs. I don’t think that is morally right.

As I have reported before, prepayment meters are being addressed to ensure those customers generally get access to much better deals that others can achieve. Those who “monitor costs” are being prudent. We should help others do the same.

I lived in a flat for a time when I was house hunting in an unfamiliar area in the early 80s. Only now is the problem of overcharging users of prepayment meters being addressed. More recently, the industry has come up with a variety of tariffs and the net result is that most people are paying more than they need to. If you would like to do your bit to help others, perhaps your local Citizens Advice is looking for volunteers.

wavechange asked: “What is wrong with charging everyone the same for their energy?”

I agree this would be fair but I don’t see how this would encourage lower prices.

If each energy company had to charge all their customers a common price, there could still be some competition, but the dynamics of the market might end up being a lot more sluggish than they are now.

We have discovered that many people won’t move suppliers, even for potential savings of £100’s per year. With fewer deals and closer prices, I think hardly anyone would bother switching.

Not quite the case of “electricity being too cheap to meter” but more like “the marginal cost of electricity being too cheap to bother switching”.

If, however, the state did set energy prices, then they (and we) would not be able to blame the energy companies for so-called fuel poverty. Then we might need to rethink our position on the minimum wage and the welfare state.

If we were to move to standard prices for electricity and gas, I envisage that these would be set at regular intervals by government in negotiation with the companies involved. Competition is essential and there are various ways that this could be achieved. One possibility would be for contracts to supply gas and electricity could be increased or decreased for companies according to price tendered for supply. Perhaps half a dozen companies would be sufficient to provide competition yet offer the economies of scale.

We commonly refer to people being disengaged with the energy market but perhaps a greater problem is that some are disengaged with the reality that many cannot afford to heat their homes adequately. I agree that we need to look at minimum wage and the welfare state but we also need to provide incentives for people to work and make a useful contribution rather than just live on benefits.

Patrick Taylor pointed to an interesting discussion on why “price fixing” doesn’t work. While we have energy companies that buy energy from different sources in different ways, with different overheads, we have the ability to use genuine competition on price. With 44 suppliers and a look at what happens when you get quotes from, say, Which?Switch we find that it is easy to find the cheapest deal. When people want to heat their homes they want the cheapest deal – don’t they?

Get Government involved in setting the price? Well, there is the clear political motivation to artificially meddle with it when elections are in the offing (perish the thought). But what price do they set? I bet it will lead to higher prices but their will then be the more efficient companies that will make bigger profits than others, and we don’t like that, do we? Would we like all petrol and diesel prices set by Govt? All housing prices? All food prices? So no one pays more than anyone else?

We have competition. The argument in my view revolves around how we get people to access the better deals – those people that is who are unable to do it for themselves. Tackle this, not distort the market. I suggested one way to get part way there was for energy companies to automatically charge their customers based on the cheapest tariff they have, giving a rebate each year if the customer was on a higher tariff.

As I said before, I am focusing on energy prices, but I can see scope for some standardisation of other prices. I can understand your concerns about political interference, so perhaps the decisions could be delegated to an independent organisation that includes experts on issues such as fuel poverty.

The cheap energy deals that many of us enjoy are at the expense of others paying more, assuming that the companies maintain profits. The poor and vulnerable are often the losers, whereas I suggest they should be our first priority.

I am interested in the suggestion of rebates for customers that are on the wrong tariff. It would be a step in the right direction, though it would not immediately help those faced with a bill they cannot pay.

Duncan Mc. At the end of the day energy and the big six should be under public control.

What about the other 38 energy companies?

And since the raw energy is under the control of a multitude of energy producers around the world what would public control of the last few miles achieve?

There was a time when most UK energy was sourced from home supplies [mainly coal and nuclear]. Those days are gone and won’t come back. Even the wind farms are owned by foreign companies who won’t just give them to the government for nothing.

Indeed. I wonder if we should, perhaps, be concerned that with other countries having so much control, prices could rise considerably or our supplies restricted. I have invested in wooly jumpers but perhaps we need Which? to do a report on how to protect them from moths. Even unused ones are vulnerable. 🙁

Protect the vulnerable wavechange. Cedar is supposed to help and is nicer than mothballs (can you still get them?) However a supplier says “Dried Lavender is used in wardrobes because moths, unlike us, loathe the smell of Lavender.” If you don’t mind being aromatic in public this might be the answer.

I have been using cedar for years but remain unconvinced about its efficacy. Maybe it has to be refreshed with cedar oil periodically. There are very effective pesticides but what is harmful to moths could is likely to be harmful to humans too.

It needs to be the dark cedar heartwood (that contains the oils) and these will evaporate, so changing the cedar is probabl;y best.
A few moth species have specific legal protection in the UK. For moth recorders, the most important legislation is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This makes it an offence (subject to exceptions) to intentionally kill, injure, or take, possess, or trade in any wild animal listed in Schedule 5 of the Act. The following moths are currently listed in Schedule 5:

Black-veined Moth (Mark Parsons)
Barberry Carpet Pareulype berberata
Black-veined Moth Siona lineata
Essex Emerald Thetidia smaragdaria
Fiery Clearwing Pyropteron chrysidiformis
Fisher’s Estuarine Moth Gortyna borelii lunata
New Forest Burnet Zygaena viciae argyllensis
Reddish Buff Acosmetia caliginosa
Sussex Emerald Thalera fimbrialis

Can’t see a woolly jumper moth here so you should escape the long arm.

I have switched from drawers to plastic boxes with close-fitting lids with fresh dark cedar – Lidl stocks these periodically. I’m sure Natural England would approve of me not using pesticides.

My concern this that energy suppliers lie to their customers and tell them that they are on the best tariff when they offer new customers better rates. Existing customers can only move to the better tariff by moving twice. Existing customers should not be prevented from moving direct and easily to the truly cheapest tariff available.

Elderly people with no computer access, or find the energy market confusing could benefit from a little assistance from their younger more computer savvy relatives.

I have heard of sons and daughters who regularly shop online for their elderly relatives. A list of requirements is phoned through and the younger relative submits the order online via their own computer to the retailer who delivers direct to their elderly relatives address and paid for later by arrangement with their relative.

A similar system could be devised to help the elderly manage their fuel costs, or at the very least they could be provided with some means of advice to guide them through the mire of confusing choices now on offer from so many suppliers.

I am fortunately still able to manage my own financial affairs online (apart from banking which I refuse to do), aided by occasional advice and some practical assistance when needed from my technologically savvy son, without which in earlier days I would have been totally lost.

It works in reverse as well, Beryl. I’m an elderly relative and have helped all my four “children” to get better deals.

You don’t need internet access. You can do it by phone (although I haven’t tried it):

“Contact Which? Switch by phone
You can call us on 0800 410 1149 or 01259 220 235.
We are open: Mon – Thurs: 9am – 8pm | Fri: 9am – 6pm”

Just into my in-box:
“Sainsbury’s Energy is British Gas under another name, but FAR cheaper. BG licenses Sainsbury’s Energy and sells its wares under it. Yet in reality it’s the same firm, same gas, same electricity, same service & same safety. The call centre’s separate, but that’s still run by BG, and all of its smart meters are compatible. ”

The French govt currently advises the standard price of gas. It is explained how it works here:
eni.com/en_FR/products-services/natural-gas/natural-gas-pricing/natural-gas-pricing.shtml

Price controls in history
cato.org/publications/commentary/problems-price-controls

I was told of a dentist who was paying £4000 for energy and saved £1300 by moving to Sainsbury’s.

Sainsburys, like some others (Marks and Spencer Energy for example) are “White Label” suppliers; that is they are effectively agents for mainstream suppliers but offer their own tariffs.

Two interesting links Patrick, the latter particularly.

An interesting development of instore franchises wavechange. I thought they were normally for shoe repairs, keycutters and so on. Is he located near the toothpaste aisle?

I believe that providing an opportunity to switch supplier in supermarkets could be the best way of engaging with more customers. If they join those of us who are engaged with the market the companies might have to push up prices for the vulnerable. 🙁

Malcolm, if all elderly were blessed with your savoire faire, there would be no need for consumer associations 🙂 It has always been my experience my offsprings will go their own way, despite any guidance from me!

I would be interested to hear from people who use the ‘phone to manage their energy accounts. Are they offered the same deals as internet users?

Beryl, my experience with offspring is as yours but they are busy people and do accept well meaning help (not always well meaning advice).

@neena-bhati, perhaps you could ask someone from “Which?Switch” to answer Beryl’s question?

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Hi Beryl, sorry for not getting back to you sooner. If someone phones Which? Switch they will be taken through their options on the phone exactly as they would online, and if tariffs are not switchable through our site they will be advised they can go direct to that supplier. If they phone the energy supplier direct, they will generally get just that supplier’s tariffs as opposed to the whole of market.

I prefer to phone direct but did have a surprise after phoning John Lewis for an insurance quote. Not sure if it was for car or home/buildings insurance now.

The next company I phoned had all my details in front of them that had been entered by another company which could only have been John Lewis. So it seems they might all use the same system for quotes and your data entered into a database whether you like it or not.

Thank you Lauren. I suppose it’s really a case of what suits but personally I prefer to examine my options online first before engaging in any verbal exchanges. It’s good to know there is always another option though in the event of online problems.

Duncan, if my recent experience of trying to accomplish any amicable exchange on the ‘phone when attempting to locate the whereabouts of missing goods is anything to go by then I don’t think it would do my blood pressure any favours to have to endure that more than I need to.

I would have thought having access to immediate and comprehensive data at the flick of a switch laid out before me is preferable to trying to explain my concerns to some half-wit talking pigeon English on the other end of the ‘phone after being subjected to an automatum telling me to press a variety of buttons and then having to hold on listening to a selection of musical strains before speaking to a real person is not the best way to manage my energy account!

I assume your ‘phone calls are all gratis and not costing you anything.

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I have changed energy suppliers about 4 times now in 10 years and always seem to end up paying more; so switching provider for lower energy tariffs simply does not work. When they want you as a new customer they always tell you that you can save about £300 a year simply by switching. However when the bills start to come in, your savings are nothing like that and after a meter reading or two they tell you your direct debits will have to go up. There seems something inherently dishonest about the way the energy companies go about their daily business. Why can’t everyone get the lowest tariff and achieve value for money??
The price of crude oil fell from $100 to $25 a barrel last year since which it has risen again to something like $50. Where are the savings that should have been passed on to the consumers? The companies say they buy in advance, but they never subsequently lower their prices in any meaningful way, just take more profits for themselves at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged in our society, in a way reminiscent of leeches.

If you switch to a fixed price fixed term deal the energy company cannot alter the terms until it expires. So you will pay for what you consume at the price agreed at the outset. You don’t say what kind of tariffs you switched to but maybe look at fixed price ones next time.

Switching is not the answer to all ills. Only the less vulnerable switch. The well off should subsidise the least well off, but the current system works the other way round. We should all pay the same, no matter how we pay. Why do we need all these different tariffs? Please campaign for one simple and fair tariff from all suppliers.

The well off do support the least well off by taxation, enabling benefits to be paid. i do not believe it is the function of commercial organisations to take on this role. For one, they do not have (and should not have) access to the personal information necessary.

I agree that it is not the function of companies to support the poor, though I would prefer that they did that rather than using their customers’ money to support all sort of purposes unrelated to their function (e.g. major sports events).

On the other hand, I am unhappy that we have a situation that the energy companies have produced a system so complicated and confusing that a large percentage of the population is not engaged with seeking lower prices. The availability of benefits has been mentioned frequently in these debates, but not the fact that those who deserve them often don’t claim them. The wealthy can appoint their own financial adviser to help them maximise their income and minimise their tax bill. The poor have to rely on Citizens Advice and charities, assuming that they know that help is available and how to get it.

I’m surprised that Which?, is not focusing on the new nuclear power stations that we are having built.
The likely costs to the public over and above fuel inflation, and what that means for bills!
The fact that said power stations, are yet to actually work anywhere else in the world!
2.5 years later in Finland, 6 years in France!
Both massively over budget and not working!
UK government has guaranteed EDF and China a subsidised rate for generation, no prizes for guessing who gets to finance that! Us!
And you’re worried about an alleged £1.6billion overcharge?
You should be more concerned with the £30billion our government has committed the consumers to pay and what that means for bills! I think you’ll find that bills are set to rise considerably!

David – thanks for a concise summary of the issues and risks associated with HPC.

3 of EDF’s existing English nuclear stations (and 1 in Scotland) are likely to close in the time it takes to build HPC.

Scotland definitely does not want more nuclear stations – and can readily use hydro/wind/tidal/wave etc. to add new capacity.

Replacing 3 old English nuclear plants (~1000MWe each) with one much larger plant (~3200MWe) seems to have been approved by the UK government as more or less a “like for like” replacement.

Along the way to that decision, have they (and their advisers) really overlooked any viable less expensive options that could have been used to replace the capacity currently provided by the Hinkley B, Heysham 1 and Hartlepool AGRs?

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Sizewell A [Magnox] is also in the process of being decommissioned so will be unproductive before Hinkley Point C is producing power.

The energy strategy places a heavy reliance on (a) reduced energy demand, and (b) renewable energy sources, in order to justify the tight replacement schedule. With solid fuel electricity generation [and before the old plants were knackered] there was always a lot of slack in the system. We shall have to get used to more sophisticated demand management in the future. I read that France is also facing capacity problems. In the uncertain future we must avoid over-reliance on imported power or fuel.

Duncan – What is the evidence for “massive” under-capacity for electrical generation? I know it’s tight, and it’s a national priority, but I don’t think we are technically under-resourced for our consumption.

I have seen no signs of a reluctance to do business with Russia outside of the sanctions imposed in response to the occupation of the Crimea. We already do a lot of business with Russia on energy [oil and gas production]. I can’t see it as being in our interests to start another cold war. It’s usually best to ignore the drivel circulating in the Whitehall and Westminster bubbles and stick to the fundamentals.

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I see.

John – according to the Magnox website, Sizewell A ceased generation on 31/12/2006 and the last Magnox station, Wylfa (on Anglesea), ceased generation on 30/12/2015.

Thanks, Derek. I must have misunderstood something that was said on TV in a report on the new Sizewell C. I suppose decommissioning starts after generation stops.

Janny says:
10 November 2016

Why don’t you battle for those off grid energy users too? These customers are left at the mercy of some unscrupulous practices, many are elderly too. There is less choice and no effective watchdog fighting their corner. All your surveys about suppliers never include off grid suppliers.

I am afraid Which? has descended to a point where it happily pushes populist red rags and ignores the helpful educational side that could assist consumers in minimising energy use.

It also, and this is a shocker, avoids the fact that in the UK we have been generally better off than the rest of Europe on pricing of energy.

And it avoids looking at the future where we are going to have potentially greater problems as France has to retire its nuclear power stations and stops exporting electricity to the rest of Europe. This is not a far distant scenario as currently 5 of the 58 stations are down. And France is the biggest electricity exporter in Europe.

Whilst I realise Which? in its funny way is not overtly political you have to think that HST over the Severn Barrage is a monstrously short-sighted view on infrastructure spending. No modern economy is immune to problems with energy supply and if it is not derived from your own resources you are prey to every upset and problem that affects the world.

Is it a consumer problem? Well it is going to be and it is likely we are going to suffer more in the future than now.

Educating members to an anticipated future costs may make investing now in alternate power sources seem very sensible.

scientificamerican.com/article/france-loses-enthusiasm-for-nuclear-power/
http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/CCANP16web-86692468.pdf
page 19 shows carbon emissions and is quite interesting. Being for the nuclear industry I am conscious that a deeper read may provide for some salt to be taken.

Tarrant Case says:
10 November 2016

I don`t have any gas so why don`t you include ” no supplier” in your list of suppliers. I don`t suppose I am the only member that dose not have gas.

To Which

Please investigate Scottish Power. They overcharged my mother by £1300. Then offered to reduce her bill to £1 per month rather than refunding outstanding balance. How many other vulnerable pensioners are being scammed in this way?

Good point, Al, but it would be helpful to your mother and others in her situation if you would report this to Ofgem, the Regulator, first to try to get proper return of your mother’s overpayment, and second to get the Regulator to review Scottish Power’s policies and practices. If the concerns about the company expressed through Which? Conversation are anything to go by it does appear to have the worst customer service and the worst record on billing and account management.

Sara ramshaw says:
14 November 2016

I am on a pre pay metre because I have a low income and never have enough money in the bank to cover direct debits and fear going overdrawn and being charged. I think it’s terrible how the energy company’s take advantage of the poor but am really pleased that which are looking into their practices. Hopefully they will stop overcharging and the disission between heat or food gets easier for all of us that are strugerling financially.

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I would like to see a Conversation that focuses on the problems of the poor and vulnerable.

I agree with that, Wavechange. Ideally it should be led by someone involved with the problems and who can make continuing contributions to advise on the impacts of different approaches. I should like to see it with an attachment containing key statistics and data so that comments can be based on facts rather than assumptions.

Have you any idea of who might be able to take on this role, John?

Ofgem has some information about strategy to deal with vulnerable members of the community. Elsewhere I have seen figures for the number of people who are in difficulties paying their bills.

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You are right, Duncan, and a lot of these concerns need to be unpacked so that we can all understand the actual scope of the problem and the resources available to tackle it. I would say that fuel poverty has no territorial boundaries and can exist for a lonely pensioner in an isolated cottage down a leafy Surrey lane just as much as for out-of-work families in a run-down estate with an active but uncaring community around it. Luckily, if Which? were to generate a Conversation along these lines we wouldn’t have to worry about inverted political correctness or media cover-ups – so long as we stuck to the facts we could leave the prejudices outside the door. It would not be an easy Conversation, however; I recall the long one on the adequacy of the UK state pension.

My first thought, Wavechange, was that Duncan has talked himself into the role, and I think he has the sort of empathy with the issues and personal insights that would be useful. Other than that, or Iain Duncan Smith, I can only suggest that a senior figure in one of the relevant charities or campaigning organisations might like to tackle it. I presume you would wish to confine the discussion to the question of the cost of domestic energy but looking at all forms so that the problems of people without access to cheaper supplies [like mains gas] would also be included. Possible answers need to look beyond the limits of energy pricing as other items that we have touched on in these Conversations could be highly relevant. It’s a huge subject but certainly worth examining.

I would have thought a charitable institution that serves the poor would be able to give facts, statistics and first hand information. The churches spring to mind to keep it broadly based.

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It would , of course, be Which?’s choice – that’s if they run with this idea in the first place – but I think a leading figure from the Salvation Army would be a good choice to host such a Conversation. Although it is a religious organisation it doesn’t carry the baggage that some other churches do and is certainly acutely aware of the sharp end of fuel poverty and many of the causes of vulnerability.

Hostile attitudes towards charitable work made some of the State Pension discussion unpleasant at times but people have strong feelings that are not always based on facts. I think we could do better with a Fuel Poverty topic.

I’d include the Salvation Army; my suggestion was not religion-based but based on the churches’ charitable work . I don’t subscribe to political correctness, whatever that meant.

I think if you want a rounded discussion you need facts from those directly involved with dealing with vulnerable people. Fuel poverty would be a good place to start – otherwise it could, perhaps, be far to big a topic for a single conversation.

My greatest concern and the one most relevant to our debates about energy prices is the problem that for whatever reason, the disadvantaged and poor often pay higher prices for energy. Is that morally right?

The present situation is that those like myself who are able to buy energy at cheaper prices are being subsidised by those who are unable to do so, for whatever reason. I hope that we could focus on this issue because fuel poverty seems to have been extensively investigated elsewhere.

I would to see some hard information – facts and numbers – to pursue what is suggested are discriminatory pricing against particular groups. Then we can better discuss remedies that may not already be under way.

We can focus on energy – it seems to attract the most criticism. However we should remember that those who are poor will likely spend more on food, housing, and other items essential to their life than simply energy. Perhaps the whole way we should be helping the genuinely vulnerable and needy should be examined.

Are we pre-empting a suggested Convo?

As I have mentioned before, gas and electricity are the same products irrespective of the seller. That makes it easy to focus on the cost issue.

Gas and electricity come from a variety of sources, the costs of their production will differ, and the way they are purchased – spot prices, 2 weeks, 1 year, 2 years futures purchasing, lead to different costs, as do the costs incurred by the suppliers.

I was asking for facts to support the discrimination in pricing that prevents certain people from having access to the prices that others cane. We can then discuss ways that might improve matters. I presume someone has specific information?

It’s the wrappers around all the tariffs that add to the difficulties for many customers :

:: Direct debit discount – not suitable for everyone as Sara Ramshaw told us yesterday.
:: Dual fuel discount – no good if you don’t have mains gas.
:: Paperless billing discount – not appropriate for many customers for several reasons.
:: Exit charges – usually reduce the unit price but lock you in or cost you more so not wanted by those on low incomes who need to switch.

All these features favour the better off and disadvantage the poorer consumers.

The government levies and taxes also must be brought into the equation, and the best policy for hard-to-heat homes which contribute to hardship.

We cannot escape looking at the benefits regime and things like the winter fuel payment and other indiscriminate payments.

I don’t think we’re pre-emptying a suggested Conversation, Malcolm – just having a stab at some terms of reference!

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Many of these reduce the cost to the supplier. A direct debit gives inexpensive payment assurance, paperless bills saves administration and postage, exit charges are a way of giving both sides a commitment to one form of tariff involving a fixed price for a duration, but they are not universal. I think actual savings should be passed on; I’d expect people to moan if they were not. However, part of the CMAs investigation should be to look at these savings to see if they are fair.

I am more concerned about people who are, or might be, denied access to the most competitive tariffs, for example on landlords meters where they may have no choice of supplier or there may be excessive landlords charges. People denied help with energy-saving measures, such as home insulation, boiler efficiency. People unable to afford a gas -fired installation and who are stuck on electricity for heating.

Just as examples. What numbers might this affect, what excessive charges might they be paying? How can they be helped? Is it landlord legislation, grants/loans (long term low rates) for necessary work?

Yes, Malcolm – there’s an awful lot to take into account. I am not against the discounts I listed and the exit penalties but they are part of the inequality between customers. We have to be realistic; life is not fair and opportunities are not equal. Better-off people can have a car and a bigger television. There is nothing about energy, except that it is essential for warmth, hot food and hygiene, that means it has to disregard the normal economic laws. Inability to afford enough energy is not exclusively a factor that suppliers can address but there will be those who think they should. An objective discussion should enable these conflicting considerations to be aired. As Duncan says, you cannot separate the role of government in considering the question of fuel poverty.

Ignoring prepayment meters for the moment, a person struggling to make ends meet would be paying the same for their energy as anyone else in the days before privatisation. In many cases, they are now paying considerably more. It is morally wrong to exploit the weaker members of our community.

I can remember two- and three-part tariffs, Wavechange, where the unit price reduced in steps as you used more electricity and gas. That was in the days of the nationalised gas and electricity boards. There was always a standing charge as well. Political interference ensured that prices didn’t rise as much as they should have done to break even so the industries ended up making huge losses that were ultimately borne by the taxpayer. A crude way of assisting [relatively] the poorer households although that was not its declared intention.

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I certainly don’t want to go back to these days but I’m concerned that we are putting commercial goals ahead of the needs of people.

I’d like some examples to illustrate what you say, so they can be examined and solutions discussed. Or perhaps the objective information is best obtained from organisations who have this data.

The 2 tier charge was an alternative to help recover the fixed costs, instead of a separate standing charge. It was, until Ofgem abolished it, a good option for low users. It may well come back.

I had an elderly witty relative who used to refer to him as the “gassly spector”

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Maybe some of our keyboard warriors should consider getting a part-time job with Citizens Advice. This could be an opportunity to put something back into the community and perhaps learn first hand about why people are not shopping around to secure the cheapest energy prices.

We also learn from being given facts and information. In my view that is how progress is made.

2 tier charges – with zero standing charge – are currently offered as prepayment tariffs by Utilita.

Martin says:
15 November 2016

We only have electricity where we live & the previous owners were with British Gas. BIG mistake. We immediately had solar panels fitted and supplied all the papers, but British Gas were as awkward and pedantic as they could be, questioning tiny details such as them not accepting the house name, then they said as the company had put Ltd instead of Limited that didn’t tally. It was any excuse to delay our being paid for the electricity we were busy producing. In the end they set a date but not after we’d lost around a months earnings already. After only a year they now say our readings are too high and refuse to pay out. They are demanding photos and then when we send them say they aren’t good enough quality. I read through my contract and NO requirement for me to send them anything other than the readings is mentioned. The stress this is causing me as a sufferer of IBS is unreasonable. I would NOT recommend this company to anybody and added to that they are overcharging us anyway. When are we to get this back to government owned? Or failing that get an authority with some teeth that doesn’t spend all this time putting it back on us? Rubbish!

It’s the sort of problems you are having, Martin, for which there seems to be no effective redress nor any means of having a purposeful discussion with an executive who will understand and respond about the poor service you are receiving. I can see that from your point of view the company appears to be acting in a deliberately perverse manner, a form of commercial impudence.