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Nick Boles MP: is switching painful or painless for you?

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Do you regularly switch energy supplier, bank or mobile provider? Or are you held back? Here’s Nick Boles MP on why the Government’s working to improve switching.

Let’s face it, switching suppliers is often a nightmare.

I recently tried to switch gas and electricity suppliers. I went onto a price comparison website and found a new supplier who it appeared would save me hundreds of pounds a year. I was told I’d hear from them within a few days. But months later, I hadn’t heard a dicky bird and was still paying over the odds for my heating and light.

I then had to go through the whole process again. Only this time, thanks to the persistence of someone at the website’s call centre, it finally worked.

Six switching principles

Everyone has a horror story to tell of trying to change banks or mobile phone provider. Only a few lucky people can relate great examples of this working just as they’re meant to.

The Government wants to make switching easier for everyone, so we’ve come up with six basic principles which we think all industries and suppliers should adopt. These are:

  1. It should be free, unless you’re aware of and have consented to fair charges
  2. It should be quick
  3. You should only have to deal with the new company
  4. You should be able to access your data
  5. Comparison tools should be transparent if they receive payments from suppliers
  6. There should be an effective process for when things go wrong

Switching principlesI’d love to hear your switching stories, positive and negative, and have you tell us what you think about our switching principles. We also have a short survey open until 4 December – your views will help us making switching better.

If you’ve switched before, was it quick and easy for you? If you haven’t, what’s stopping you?

This is a guest contribution by Consumer Minister Nick Boles MP. All opinions are Nick’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


Back in March I switched by parents from SSE for Electricity , and British Gas for Gas to EDF. I’ve been a customer of EDF for years, and regularly switch to the newer tariffs when my old one comes close to expiring. They’re always in the top 2 or 3 for my usage. Using various comparison tools I worked out my parents could save a couple of hundred pounds on each, whilst I would make £50 for switching them via a cashback site. So far so good. then the problems. Well it seems like many companies can’t cope with one person having more than one account for the same email address, sigh. I thought computers were supposed to make things easy, seems they don’t. Shortly after the switch my dad informed me he was getting paid £5 for having 3 direct debts come out of his account each month. Up to this point he’s also stated he’ll never use direct debts as he doesn’t trust banks or companies. Oh well, no biggy, I’ll just ring EDF and change from postal to direct debt. I rang as that’s when I tried to do it online and found EDF couldn’t handle me having 2 properties. The guy on the phone was very understanding and agreed to do the switch to direct debit for me, he also agreed that if I owned 25 properties and won’t them all with EDF, EDF were the ones to lose out cos their stupid system. Couple of minutes later he came back, and he too was unable to set up a direct debit. To cut a long story short. 8 weeks later we finally had the direct debit up and running. I loathe to attempt to switch again.

On a personal note I switch car insurance every year, basically bouncing back and forth between 2 suppliers the main gripes about this being they set up accounts to auto renew, which is wrong. They never say how much I paid last year on this year renewal statement, which is wrong. Car insurance needs to be dragged kicking and screaming if need be into the 21 st century.

You’ve met some stupid old practices, William, but most of them are certainly a part of 21st century Capitalism and Monetarism, as encouraged by our government. Basically, it’s “charge what the market can bear” and “there’s one born every day”; and the government ought not to interfere beyond influencing the overall flow of money. That’s why, today, a minister went on the radio saying that people who’ve bought event tickets are welcome to sell them on if someone will pay them more – ad infinitum. If that made ticket-touting impossible to stop, well: that’s business!

In the same way, if a power or insurance company or bank or internet provider wants to make it hard for you to discover which deal was best, or makes it difficult to compare rates; well: that’s business. It takes pressure from organizations like Which? to force some rules on them, but in essence the government sees such tactics are perfectly reasonable, and it’s up to the consumer to be sharp-eyed, or lose out to someone (or some seller) who can compete more effectively.

The restrictions on numbers of accounts or direct debits per user or email address are a new thing. In essence, companies don’t want to fall foul of scams or money laundering (there are penalties for the latter), and both go overboard on security restrictions, and have conflicting rules because it’s so hard to cover all less usual circumstances. That’s when the quality of the best providers stands out: their basic systems are worked out better in the first place; and they give senior help staff the power to make sensible adjustments.

I have just switched my internet and phone from Plusnet to BT because of slow speeds and bad customer service but now they are charging me £187.62 for cancelling my contract that I think is daylight robbery and when I try to phone about it I am put on hold for about 45 minuets so get fed up waiting and hang up,
so switching is not that simple as some say it is.

Ted the veteran. Rod, They cant charge you anything unless you are tied down to a contract that is still in progress, Iam a 25 yr Virgin media or as it was way back then Telewest, Costomer i ring them regular and complain that there are plentyof deals for new costomers yet nothing for loyalty……… They soon come up with an offer i am paying £28 for 100 meg broadband phone line rental and a few channels thrown on top of my basic T.V. Never give up m8 its your fundimental right to complain. Check if you are out ofcontract with plusnet and if they still dont improve your service threaten them with your local ombudsman good luck Ted.

Steve says:
12 November 2015

PlusNet are absolutely awful. I switched bank accounts and PlusNet couldn’t change my DD instruction in time for the next payment, so it was rejected. I called them and offered to pay by card and they said it wasn’t necessary as they would re-submit the DD. They then sent me a message saying they were cutting off my phone so I rang them and again offered to pay by card, I also told them I had a poorly relative so needed to keep my phone connected at all costs. Again they said not to worry and everything would be OK. The next day they cut off outward calls, it took several hours to reconnect and they charged for reconnection. Not surprisingly, the next thing I switched was my phone and broadband supplier !

I switched to PlusNet from aol and found it simple. when the village, 1 mile away, had a cabinet installed I enquired about availabililty of higher speed and I was told, yes, speed 4 times aol offered. My neighbours, 1 with talktalk and 1 with Bt still cannot get the higher speed.
From enquiry to completed installation took 4 days and has been trouble free.

PLUS NET ARE ACTUALLY PART OF THE BT GROUP ! So not sure how much extra speed or customer service you will receive (but if you like calling asian call centres to resolve any problems you experience, then BT is at the forefront). The fact that they want to screw you for switching to the same company is beyond daylight robbery, but entirely typical of BT. Personally I would never deal with BT or any of their companies. Since this business was privatised, they care only about profit and customer service to them is just a drain on profits. I recommend Waitrose Broadband and calls – a company with integrity who treat their customers and staff with respect and deliver a quality service.

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I’m with John Lewis Broadband (to which Waitrose customers migrated) – effectively Plusnet. It is capped (but can be unlimited); no problem as we do not stream much data. On the occasions I have contacted them, both by phone in Sheffield and using the contact service, they have been efficient and very helpful. Not the cheapest but in my view deserving the Which? recommendation.

We had a phone problem – a lot of noise on the line. The sent a BT technician out who renewed a very old connection box and re-routed the cable to a new outlet installed near the router. Job done quickly, neatly and problem sorted. No charge.

We have also had similar experiences with plusnet via John Lewis Broadband: excellent customer service, free to use helpline.

When I have had a problem with a phone line connection, Malcolm, Plusnet ask me to do several checks, including trying a different modem and cabling. Very wise, because BT Wholesale’s techies, when Plusnet or anyone else ask them to come out to a problem, have to charge if the problem’s in your own premises.

The last time, Plusnet persuaded them to completely change my connection at the exchange – and it doubled my speed! It turns out that I had been on a 70-year-old copper line, passing through the old exchange to the new one (which is near my home!) and switching me to a fresh direct line was a good fix. But without Plusnet’s badgering (which took 3 weeks of pressure) the engineers wouldn’t bend a rule and try the obvious.

For some reason that I don’t understand but am very glad for as a longstanding Plusnet customer, BT have always let Plusnet go their own way – but they do watch carefully. For over a decade, Plusnet have been in the top providers for value and customer service, while BT are at the other end! I did ask a technical agent about this, and he said that BT people come around their call centres and offices all the time, watching what Plusnet do. Maybe they might learn something! What you say about Waitrose, Rivaldo, has been true in my experience with Plusnet, and I’ve been with them from their first year, decades ago. I haven’t switched because they’ve always delivered.

You will soon be wanting to switch from BT……NEVER EVER use BT…good luck when something goes wrong lol

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Fair ’nuff, Duncan. But you’re an exception, as the Which? collected stats tell us. Good luck!

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You’re a very lucky man Duncan ! You may have a different view if a physical problem arose with their line/equipment.

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Sorry to hear that, Rodney. I’ve been with PlusNet since they were founded about 18 years ago, and 100% consistently found their customer service to be first class; they’ve always gone the extra mile for me, which is why I stick with them and recommend friends to them. I do know that if I take out a new contract with them, I’m bound by my word and the law to honour my promises; and if I can’t, I’ve agreed up front to pay them a stated withdrawal penalty. They aren’t cheating you by keeping you to your word. ALL the other providers do the same, and so do your friends: if you lend them your mower and they break it, you expect them to put you back in the position you were in before they borrowed the mower. It wouldn’t be ‘daylight robbery’ to want your neighbour to compensate you for the lost asset – the mower. Internet providers are essentially doing the same – when you break the contract, you’re losing them earnings that they have a right to expect.

By the way, PlusNet isn’t the fastest provider on the market; they try to be the cheapest. I’ve never had to wait longer than 12 minutes for an answer, but that was exceptional. Everyone has different experiences; it’s not good when they’re bad, but nor is it fair to call the worst experiences ‘typical’.

Some time ago, when the Cooperative Bank was in the news for all wrong reasons, I switched from Smile to Nationwide online. It was perfectly painless.

One year ago I was paying Scottish Power £112 per month for my combined gas and electricity with a credit balance of over £500. As soon as my fixed tariff ended in March this year I switched to Ovo Energy on the recommendation of Which? and my monthly direct debit immediately dropped to £82 per month, a £30 a month saving. Because their system requires you to read and send your meter readings on the day before the direct debit is transferred from your account on a monthly basis, this enables them to keep up to date tracks of your usage and advise of any necessary adjustment in payments. The system works very well for me as it enables me to monitor and control my usage and, as a result, I have recently been given the option of further reducing my monthly payments to £62 a month, almost half the amount I was paying Scottish Power a year ago. You are also given the option to top up your payments if your usage increases.

The switch over was relatively easy. The first thing I did was to inform my bank to cease all DD payments in favour of SP who were not entirely happy about this, but as my credit balance had amounted to over £500 I felt justified in doing so and during the 6/7 weeks to completion I ended up owing them £25 which I duly paid. Having read some of the comments on the problems some people were experiencing with energy suppliers reimbursing credit balances upon switching, I decided this was the best course of action to avoid any additional hassle, and it paid off.

I am glad I took the decision to switch to one of the independent smaller suppliers as

(a) it contributes to breaking up the monopoly of The Big Six
(b) It has saved me the sum of £50 a month on my energy bills
(c) It is British owned.
(d) It has enabled me to keep control over my energy bills and
usage and, most importantly, it has restored some semblance of
trust in my energy supplier.

“Let’s face it, switching suppliers is often a nightmare.” That seems a rather sweeping statement – based on what? Most people don’t seem to bother changing supplier, not for “nightmare” reasons, but they just don’t engage.

“Everyone has a horror story to tell of trying to change banks or mobile phone provider”. Another sweeping statement – what is this based on. At the moment it’s everyone minus one. I haven’t a horror story to relate.

I’ve changed banks. I’ve changed energy suppliers 3 times. I’ve changed tariff regularly as a better fixed price one comes along.

Whilst I am all for making this process as simple as possible, I haven’t found a problem with energy using Which? Switch. It seems to me the main service Nick could do is to persuade people that switching from a standard tariff to a fixed price tariff is a money saver. Look at Which? Switch to see who offers the best deal, and how much you can save. Then go for it.

At the very least find out from your current supplier what their best fixed price deal is – try asking them. Switching tariffs is easy.

I have recounted the hassles I had switching from e.on to Scottish Power in an earlier Conversation. At present, I’m about £220 in credit to Scottish Power. One of the reasons I switched was because I was fed-up with e.on holding on to my money, but Scottish Power are just as bad.

It seems that if I act before the end of this month I can “save” £252.27 by switching to another of their accounts. To put it another way, unless I act, I will be charged around an extra £250.

Let’s put an end to this nonsense. Energy is vital to everyone and companies should not be allowed to push up prices in this way if you fail to take action.

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I had switched to Scottish Power before I heard all the criticism about their poor customer service. Despite the problems I encountered, the people I spoke to at Scottish Power were polite and seemed to be trying to help. It was the first time I encountered an offer to call me back rather than wait for my call to be answered.

What I object to is the need for anyone to switch tariff or supplier to avoid major price increases.

Fixed price energy tariffs with an exit penalty seemed to have some logic – you gambled that for 1 or more years the energy price would increase and that, on average over the period,you’d be better off at the fixed price with more predictable bills. Now, most have no exit penalties; if the price drops, as it has, you just switch to a cheaper deal so it has all become pointless.

In a few years when we all have smart meters the suppliers will be able to charge different unit prices at different times of the day or night – in 1 hour or even 1/2 hour slots; this will reflect the demand placed on the system – peak use times will cost more, low use less – a much more sophisticated form of Economy 7 or other dual tariffs. This may help balance the demand better and avoid the need to have excessive capacity. Will it encourage people to shift their higher energy use – washing machines, dishwashers for example, to cheaper times? It won’t help with cooking and boiling the kettle though. Will people make use of cheaper energy times? I doubt it – if they don’t engage now to save substantial money they won’t bother to take advantage of this.

But the point is when this is introduced tariff choice will become even more complex – not just choosing a base unit cost, but this will vary throughout the day.

So I’m in favour of one standard basic tariff , but we will need to accept that costs will go up as well as down with the market, just like petrol. And it may vary by time of day. The choice then will just be between suppliers, so switching needs to be hassle-free. Whilst I dislike government being put in control of commercial matters like this I would support a national price comparison site and switching service that includes all energy suppliers, possibly under Ofgem’s control. Why do we need all the present comparison sites, taking fees and maybe being selective in who they promote? We will still need to focus on making people aware of potential savings by switching, but there does come a point where if people do not want to bother you can’t force them.

I hope that everyone is aware that although a customer is not charged for switching energy provider, there are costs and these are paid for by all consumers.

So those who don’t switch are paying to support those who do.

Many people don’t switch because they are coping with illness, family crises or just being old and decrepit. So we penalise them.

I was of the misguided opinion that the introduction of smart meters would simplify the energy market. If prices will vary according to peak/off peak times, this surely will penalise people who are unable to take advantage of cheaper rates due to work and other commitments. Will we soon be needing accountancy degrees in order to keep abreast of and understand the ever changing energy tariffs to be assured of keeping warm during the cold winter months?

For the sake of the very elderly and under-privileged, let’s keep it simple to prevent the exploitation of these less able and vulnerable members of society.

Beryl, it is a feature that smart meters permit . In principle. Whether it will be used, and when, remains to be seen. It is, of course, difficult to know who will be the winners and losers. At present we pay an “average” price day and night. By shifting washing, dishwasher, other heavy use appliances, out of peak times will be simple for many (if they bother) and should reduce bills. By using all appliances at peak times will increase bills. You could argue it gives many users more control over how best to use their energy. I expect simple guidance will be given. However this is speculation for the future. I am unconvinced by the cost-effectiveness of smart meters.

Malcolm, the laws of supply and demand determine that excessive demand eventually leads to increased prices. The present system of off peak energy usage is limited to a small percentage of users and is sustainable. Comprehensive and wide ranging off peak usage will only prove counter productive and is bound to lead to price
increases, provided of course every user becomes savvy
enough to take advantage of it.

On the other hand, if enough people do take advantage of off-peak usage, this reduces the size of maximum demand capacity, reduces the cost of investment in new equipment and, for electricity, reduces the need for expensive back-up generation from diesel-powered supplies.

…………….not forgetting of course the extra charges added to consumers bills to pay for the smart meters.

Robert C says:
12 November 2015

I agree, keep it simple or nobody will understand or bother.
However, it is not just about price.
If we all try to run electric appliances during high-demand times then the generators have to switch on more expensive plant – perhaps old and inefficient, or fast-responding and less efficient. This is not good for the environment OR the average cost to us all.
If we can be persuaded to use it at different times then only the most efficient generating plant is used – this is why using washing machines and dish-washers at night (when many factories and of course offices are closed) is cheaper. It helps smooth out the peaks in demand

It’s not worth the risk running washing machines and dishwashers at night: http://www.which.co.uk/news/2015/06/which-reveals-the-home-appliances-most-likely-to-catch-fire-406053/

I appreciate that the risk is not great but some people don’t even have a smoke detector near their appliance.

“people don’t even have a smoke detector near their appliance.”. Even if you are in a living room during the day, without a detector a fire may take hold without you knowing until it is established. So the answer surely is to fit smoke detectors (a requirement for some time in all new houses) for your own protection. Then you can help by using off-peak electricity.

I think some fire authorities will fit them for you, for nothing.

Fire services recommend that appliances are not used overnight.

Wavechange, fire services recommend that no flammable substances should be in your house, and that windows and doors should be unlocked in case of emergency at night. Needs some common sense here!

I have memories of dealing with a fire in a TV at my parents’ house in the 70s. Fortunately the part on fire was semi-enclosed in metal and I was able to deal with the fire promptly. Many household appliances make use of plastics that can burn and give off dense smoke and toxic fumes. A couple of service engineers have posted comments about the fire risk from unseen build-up of flammable fluff in some designs of tumble drier.

Obviously fridges and freezers have to be left on overnight, so need to be designed carefully. There have been fires in models where components involved in automatic defrosting have been encased in plastic rather than metal.

I don’t leave anything more than necessary on at night.

We run washing machines/dishwashers at off peak. But need heating on when the largest % of the nation does also

I have switched energy suppliers for the last 4 years, I go with the cheapest [as long as the service is good]to keep my energy costs down. Three of the last suppliers have been smaller companies this year though I have gone through Martin Lewis’ Money Saving Expert Energy Club they have done a good deal with Eon for their customers, I am paying less now than in previous years and my monthly DD has dropped as well. At present though you cannot consider a change until 49 days’ before your fixed tariff ends otherwise you will be penalised. It then further takes a month to six weeks for complete changeover, that is the longest bind at present although it has all worked out ok in the case of each change. My home and car insurances are due shortly I will now be looking at them carefully. If I do not get as good as deals that they offer new customers I will be changing suppliers in each case, something I have not done previous.

Collective switching deals are promoted by Ofgem. I am uncertain about my support for these. Why should a group organised by a local authority, or Which?, for example be able to achieve better prices than an individual? A small supplier or a new entrant would find such schemes attractive to build its customer base more rapidly but do we need more entrants – I think we already have around 36 energy suppliers. We just need genuine competition from the ones already out there, don’t we?

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I have switched Banks three times in the last two decades and energy providers three times in the last eight years, and no the switching has not been a problem.

One begins to wonder if people’s inherent laziness trumps any efforts to make the process easier/quicker/simpler. I am sure there are some benefits and the number who are bothering has increased but has anybody actually calculated an acceptable level of transfer activity?

Of course this whole farrago does excludes pretty much all those who are not on the Net.

It is not necessary to be on the net to switch energy suppliers or to get prices. It can be done on the phone – Which? Switch gives their phone number.

The research shows that many people simply do not bother to switch, to a cheaper tariff or another provider, even though they could and are quite capable of doing so. Presumably saving a couple of hundred pounds a year is not that big an incentive? You cannot force people to be done good to. But they are subsidising the prices of those who choose fixed price deals.

How do you know about Which? Switch to ring them? I am not being facetious but what apparently is a trivial task for those on-line may not be easy if you rely on newspapers and TV for information.

dt, I am simply pointing out you can switch by phone. We need to publicise methods of doing a switch – that is a separate issue but one that needs addressing. It could come with your energy bill for example.

Irrespective of whether switching energy supplier is painful or painless, let’s think about the consequence of switching to achieve a better price. If you pay less for your energy, others will pay more.

In the 21st century, I believe we should be thinking more of others, especially those who struggle to pay their energy bills. The intelligent solution is surely for everyone to pay the same price for their energy. Energy supply is is a complicated mess. Competition is welcome but perhaps the companies could compete for the percentage of the energy market they are permitted to supply.

I wonder if those who promote switching actually realise that they are pushing up prices for others.

My concerns relate only to essential services such as energy and water supply.

If a company can produce a product, including energy, cheaper whether through lower raw energy cost, lower overheads, I want that passed on to the customer and I want to be free to take advantage of it. Fix energy prices across the board and the more efficient companies will simply be handed bigger profits on a plate. And what government body would have the ability to fix prices? Guess what might happen near an election.

It has also nothing whatsoever to do with the “thinking more of others” criticism. The vulnerable should be helped with essentials.

It has everything to do with thinking about others.

Wavechange does not seem to understand that driving price down does not make it more expensive for others. The company will sell at the highest price they can get. so all this would do is drive up profits.

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Use several comparison sites and compare results from each, I suggest picking the cheapest company that’s not in the ‘Big Six’. The answer is usually Ovo and even if it’s not then it’s worth paying a bit more for their excellent customer service – no, I’m not one of their employees!

Has anyone considered charging for a Smart meter to be installed in their home? Given the various disbenefits mentioned above, any advance on £1000?!

I have switched energy suppliers three times over 10 years. Each time it was pretty straightforward and each time gave a good saving – the last one over £250 in a year!

I think the promotion of switching is based on false logic. Of course it is good practice to compare prices and to try to get the best deal, but Which promote switching as a panacea for lots of issues eg fuel, broadband bank accounts etc. Research has shown that for many people more choice and more decisions can actually make people feel incompetent and powerless. and continually switching is uneconomic in terms of time. What would be more helpful would be if all providers of whatever service had to pass a plain English test for all their offers so that we would know we were comparing like for like.

My personal experience of trying to switch fuel providers was that my switch was not accepted by a number of suppliers because I hadn’t lived at the same address for over 4 years. I have also found the Which comparison calculator inaccurate and have been able to get better deals myself.

Robert C says:
12 November 2015

Switching is a sign the current supplier does not value loyal customers and treats them with contempt.
Switching is a pain, as you have to read a whole load of new small print (20 pages last time for energy)
Perhaps the government can persuade the industry (whichever one) to agree REASONABLE AND BRIEF standard terms and conditions and then only refer to those, plus any specific conditions. This would have the advantage of highlighting the special ones.
You never know exactly when they will switch, especially “will it be this month or next month?” as far as direct debits are concerned.
I do switch, sometimes, usually when they have annoyed me and the Ombudsman has agreed with me. I am happy to stay with the existing supplier if their service is good and prices reasonable – I do not just want the cheapest, as there is usually a catch.

Poor experience switching gas supply to and from Ovo.
I regularly switch energy suppliers, never had a problem apart from the above. Both switching to and from Ovo, there was considerable delay in transferring gas supply and disputes about meter readings. Switching electricity at the same times from/to same companies went smoothly as always.
I have found best deals via community switching, which negotiates bulk contracts via local authorities.

I’ve switched several current accounts this year and energy suppliers going back many years. Neither has ever been a problem. The new CASS is working very well and seems to be a seamless process unlike the old switch that involved setting up payments manually