Energy suppliers will be forced to tell customers about the cheapest gas and electricity tariffs they offer and make their bills easier to understand, under plans being floated by energy regulator Ofgem.
Following days of confusion surrounding Prime Minister David Cameron’s energy policy, Ofgem has announced it is consulting on plans for a package of “simpler, clearer, fairer measures to improve radically the competitiveness of the household energy market”.
What changes will be brought in and how will they affect you? Find out with our Q&A.
What’s it all about?
As it stands, many customers find it extremely difficult to decipher their bill and work out if they are on the cheapest tariff available.
The huge number of tariffs on offer from different providers – which vary depending on where you live, your method of payment and so on – make shopping around confusing, so many customers don’t bother to switch.
Research from consumer group Which? indicates only one in 10 people are able to find the cheapest deal.
Ofgem has today announced plans to tackle this issue, vowing to implement measures that will simplify tariffs.
The need for simplification has become more evident after price rises were announced by energy suppliers one week ago.
What does Ofgem intend to do?
The regulator’s proposals for consultation include:
- Limiting the number of tariffs suppliers can offer to four “core” tariffs: That will actually mean four tariffs per fuel type (electricity and gas), which would apply to each payment type. If suppliers participate in collective switching they will be able to offer another tariff, Ofgem says.
- ‘Dead’, ‘standard’ or ‘variable’ tariffs no longer available will be banned: Suppliers will only be to keep consumers on dead tariffs if they offer them value for money. Otherwise they will be transferred to their supplier’s cheapest variable deal.
- Personalised information: Suppliers will be required to give all their customers personalised information on the cheapest tariff they offer for them.
- Simplified information: Information suppliers send to consumers to be simplified, more engaging and use standard, easy-to-understand wording.
- A pilot scheme regarding vulnerable customers: Vulnerable customers and others who haven’t switched for some time would be offered, by suppliers, a personalised estimate on the cheapest tariff from across the energy market.
- A new Tariff Comparison Rate (TCR): A TCR would be used in all suppliers’ communications to help customers compare tariffs. Ofgem is also proposing personalised estimates with customers’ usage to help them compare tariffs more accurately when switching.
- Banning price increases or other changes to fixed term tariffs: Except trackers or structured price increases set out in advance which are fully in line with consumer protection law.
- Banning suppliers from rolling customers onto further fixed term contracts without their consent
- Providing a no-exit fee and 42-day switching window before the end date to their fixed term tariff before switching to a new tariff.
- New monitoring procedures: i.e. Tracking the impact on consumers, including vulnerable consumers; monitoring the market to gauge the impact of the reforms and publishing suppliers’ performance, including complaint handling and satisfaction results.
So how will I benefit?
There are a number of advantages:
More information: You’ll be given regular information on your energy use and your forecast annual bill, so you’re armed with the information you need to compare quotes with your current deal.
The new tariff information label will provide an easy way to compare the terms and conditions of tariffs in the market on a “like for like” basis, and the jargon on your bill will be replaced with easy-to-understand wording.
And when your price changes you’ll receive clear information, telling you in pounds and pence what the new cost is likely to be.
Extra protection if you choose a fixed-term contract: For example, new rules will be introduced to ensure you receive the information you need before your current contract ends, so you can start shopping around.
Better conduct: Suppliers will be required to meet Standards of Conduct: to treat you fairly and ensure they are meeting consumers’ needs. This will cover all their dealings with you, including the information they send you as well as when you speak to them with a query or complaint.
When will these changes come into force?
Ofgem aims to start introducing its reforms by summer 2013. The regulator is legally required to go through an extensive consultation process beforehand.
Meanwhile the government is publishing its Energy Bill, which may add more measures.
Have the plans been well received?
The executive director of consumer group Which?, Richard Lloyd, broadly welcomed the proposals.
"Along with the Prime Minister's promise to ensure suppliers put their customers on their lowest tariffs, this is another big step towards helping people get the best price for their energy," he said.
"Our own research shows the market is far too complicated, with only one in 10 people able to find the cheapest deal.
"These proposals will boost customer power, making it much easier to shop around, and should increase the pressure on the energy companies to keep their prices in check."
But some criticism has been directed at the plans Caroline Flint, shadow energy and climate change secretary, said Ofgem's proposals were “only tinkering at the margins”.
Ms Flint said: “It is deeply disappointing that after spending nearly two years putting these proposals together Ofgem has once again ducked the opportunity to get tough with the energy giants.
“We need to open up the books of the energy companies, but these reforms do nothing to improve the transparency of the prices these firms charge their customers."
Meanwhile News agency Reuters noted a potential hole in the plans, reporting: “Britain's energy regulator Ofgem stopped short of forcing energy suppliers to give their cheapest tariff, a political hot potato, in measures to simplify domestic gas and electricity bills on Friday.”
What stance does the Government take on this issue?
During Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, David Cameron promised to legislate "so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers".
Ministers at the Department for Energy and Climate Change were understood to be surprised by the announcement, while the big energy firms said they were totally unaware of the plan or of the government's intention to put it into legislation.
A Downing Street source told the Guardian it had been going on for weeks, and it was not something the prime minister said on the spur of the moment.