Helen Martin: Energy tariff lecture added fuel to the ire

Energy companies do not make it easy to switch tariff. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Energy companies do not make it easy to switch tariff. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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THE man from the power company had come to try to talk me out of switching my supplier. He didn’t get off to a good start when he told me I had been paying too much for the past year and should have been on a lower tariff anyway which I could now move to.

I asked him why that was and he explained there was a line at the bottom of each bill suggesting customers “take the Power Challenge”, which would have shown I was on the wrong plan. I had ignored it, and paid the price.

“Do you think this is a TV game show?” I asked him. “This is my home, my life, my money. You see my bills, my usage pattern. I shouldn’t have to ‘take a challenge’ to be placed on the correct tariff.”

He looked puzzled. He was young enough to have lived his life in a world where the onus is on the customer to avoid being ripped off rather than the supplier to deliver the best product at the best price.

According to the Competition and Markets Authority, 95 per cent of dual fuel customers are over-paying by an average of £196 every year, some nearer £240.

The energy companies get away with this by offering “better deals” – but putting the onus on customers to find them. That way, they can then accuse the public of “failing to take advantage” of better tariffs.

Now let me think. How many more important and necessary things do I have to do in a normal busy day, than spend hours on the phone or the internet, straining my maths to the limit and being totally flummoxed by impenetrable figures based on number of pence per kilowatt hour, metered units and standing charges, let alone factoring in seasonal usage patterns and sundry “discounts” whether they apply to dual fuel or on-line billing? And what are the chances of me getting it right?

Despite the industry’s claims that it aims for transparency, there are far too many tariffs and far too many conditions for the customer to have any hope of clarity.

And so far, governments have done absolutely nothing to protect us against power companies and their devious ways.

How much simpler and fairer life would be if each firm had a standard tarrif, a dual fuel tariff, and a means-tested slightly lower tariff for those on low incomes. Get rid of the rest. Fuel is as vital as water, air and food (although the latter’s a whole different subject). We shouldn’t be looking for, or expecting great deals, offers or bargains. Winners and losers are for games and sport, not heating and lighting. All we need is for the charging to be fair, regulated, clear, and to know that the next door neighbour in an identical house with the same sized family and using the same amount of energy from the same company is paying the same as we are.

That is what we once had of course, before Mrs Thatcher’s obsession with deregulation and privatisation and her ludicrous notion that competition would bring prices down rather than spur companies to find ever-more duplicitous ways to hoodwink us into paying too much.

UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey is threatening to break up power companies. Let’s hope this time he means it.

Make this e-cigarette ban disappear in a puff of smoke

IT’S nearly a year since I’ve been completely off the smokes and using only a vapouriser, a year free of sinusitis, coughs and smelly hair.

And I take my fragrant-smelling hat off to NHS Lothian, the only health board in the country refusing to include e-cigs in the smoking ban throughout hospital grounds.

I suppose they realise that vapour is not smoke and does not contain the carcinogens and toxins of cigarettes. Nor does it smell, stain or create litter. They probably also realise that in the stressful circumstances which often apply to people hanging around hospitals, banning e-cigs will probably lead to more smokers illicitly lighting up where they shouldn’t as, in their eyes, the only healthier alternative has been removed.

Even Ash Scotland (Action on Smoking and Health) doesn’t want e-cigs included in the ban. That must count for something.

Live and let live, i say

TEMPORARY student lets can make it difficult for others in a traditional shared stair to arrange maintenance or communal repairs with the landlord. The constant change can also de-stabilise stair communities. So surely modern, purpose-built, student accommodation on the Southside is a good idea?

Monumental errors not confined to Parliament House

I WASN’T in the least surprised to learn the council had inadvertently given away Parliament House (pictured left) because it didn’t know it owned it in the first place.

We have a small, historical, local “monument” on our garden wall which is falling into disrepair. The previous owner had sold it to the council in 1996 for £1 but when I rang them to point out bits were falling off it, they denied ownership. Fortunately it was in our title deeds with details of the transaction and date, so they were caught bang to rights, although years later, they still haven’t done anything to maintain it.

Strange how they care so little for heritage, yet dig their heels in over non-traditional paint colour, UPVC double-glazing, or a much-loved fibre-glass cow that was doing no harm to its West End listed building.