Know your Rights

Gas and electricity companies should abide by their own code of practice when billing you. The Energy Retail Association, their trade association, has published a ‘Code of Practice for Accurate Bills’ which contains useful material which you can refer to if you aren’t happy with a utility bill.

Regular meter readings

There have been rare instances of suppliers relying on estimated bills for unreasonably long periods of time, and then demanding huge ‘catch-up’ amounts to make up for underestimated bills.

That should now be a thing of the past. Under paragraph 2.1 of the code, it is stated that, ‘Your supplier will attempt to obtain a meter reading on a regular basis, at least every two years as a minimum, either by visiting your premises or explaining how you can provide your own reading.’

Taken together with paragraph 5.1, which provides that ‘If your supplier is at fault, they will not seek additional payment for unbilled energy accrued more than one year prior to the bill being issued’, this is very helpful.

It means that, if a reading has not been taken for more than two years, the supplier will be at fault under paragraph 2.1, so that when the meter is actually read, no more than one year’s shortfall between consumption and billing should be claimed.

These cases have never been common, but when they have occurred they have been difficult to resolve, so the guidance is welcome.

Contents of the bill

Paragraph 3 deals with the contents of the bill itself, and provides that clear and timely bills will be produced, based on the most accurate information available to the supplier. The paragraph goes on to stipulate matters that must be contained in the bill. The obvious figures on usage, dates, price and total charges must be included, such that it should be possible for a customer to check the accuracy of the bill in relation to consumption.

Estimated bills

When the meter hasn’t been read by the supplier, the code provides for an estimated bill based on past usage to be issued, but it must be clear that the bill is based on an estimate, rather than actual consumption.
When a customer receives an estimated bill, then contacts the supplier with their own reading, an adjusted bill should be produced within 10 days.

Other information

There should also be information about the tariff, and about any proposed changes in the supply contract.
Any unusually high or low bills will be checked by the supplier before being sent out.
Direct debits

The code also deals with methods of payment under paragraph 5, which provides that direct debits should represent a real estimate of average annual consumption. They should be adjusted to reflect more accurate information when that is received by the supplier, including reviewing the amount to make sure it covers consumption.

If the supplier owes money to the consumer, the code provides that it will be repaid ‘according to the particular product/payment plan’. That appears to mean that the speed and method of payment depend on the terms of the supply contract between the customer and the company.

It’s fair to say that the detailed terms and conditions of supply are not usually understood in detail by consumers, but they should be available either online, or by calling the supplier and asking for a copy to be sent.

In the event of a dispute about a utility bill, the first thing to do is to contact the supplier and ask them to deal with the problem. If that doesn´t work, you should ask  them to activate their complaints procedure, and at the same time ask for details of that procedure so that you can check it is being properly complied with.

If you are complaining, it is important to realise that it is up to you to keep the momentum up.

Generally, the supplier has eight weeks to resolve matters, and if they are not resolved within that time, or if you have reached a deadlock, you can refer the matter to the Energy Ombudsman.

You may want first of all to get advice from Citizens´ Advice Consumer Service. Citizens´ Advice should be able to give you objective advice about the merits and likely outcome of your complaint, and help you to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to pursue it.

They will not be able to take it up for you; although another organization called Consumer focus may be able to if you come within their definition of a ‘vulnerable’ customer.

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