The Scottish CAB Service helped consumers with nearly a third more energy problems last year – according to new figures published today by Citizens Advice Scotland.
The increase is due to ongoing problems with fuel poverty, poor sales practices and high bills but also to the fact that the Scottish CAB Service now runs a dedicated consumer helpline in addition to its local network of CAB offices.
Today’s report (Sunday) comes as the CAB service prepares to launch a high-profile information campaign – Big Energy Saving Week – which aims to give people practical advice on how to cut their fuel bills.
Some of the main figures from today’s report include:
- Although fuel poverty rates are down by 3.4%, Scottish CABs saw 4% more energy-related issues in 2012/13 compared with the previous year
- With the addition of the Citizens Advice consumer helpline, the Scottish CAB Service now deals with 31% more energy issues than it did in 2011/12.
- Last year Scottish CABs secured nearly a quarter of a million pounds (£242,918) for clients through advice on switching, energy efficiency, debt management and government schemes. That’s an increase of 15% on the previous year.
- Consumers in Scotland contacted their CAB with nearly seven times as many issues about poor sales practices in the energy industry last year (up from 111 to 756; an increase of 581%).
- Our case evidence shows that benefits changes are having a serious and detrimental effect on people’s ability to pay for their fuel, often leaving people facing the stark choice between heating and eating.
Publishing today’s report, Citizens Advice Scotland’s consumer spokesperson Sarah Beattie-Smith says,
“It’s clear from this report that too many consumers in Scotland experience problems with their energy supply, leading to cold homes and empty wallets – not to mention a lack of trust in the industry. Nobody should be faced with the stark choice of heating or eating but the cases in our report show that Scottish households face that choice day in and day out.
“It’s also clear that many people are having other problems with their energy supplier, including poor sales practice and mistakes in service and billing. We’re proud of the success rate the CAB service has in helping people sort these problems, but we would hope that the energy companies will do more to improve their service and stamp out these problems. Consumers deserve the best possible service.
“The CAB service is working hard to provide practical support and advice to consumers on how to save money on their energy bills, and how to fix problems with their supplier. Our report includes a list of recommendations for governments, the energy industry and landlords about how they can help people beat fuel poverty. In the meantime, people who are struggling with energy bills should take advantage of the free expert advice that the CAB Service can give them.
“Our Big Energy Saving Week campaign this week is all about helping people pay less for their energy. You can get our free help on 0808 808 2282, or at www.bigenergysavingweek.org.uk or from your local CABs.”
Notes to editors - click to expand/collapse
Big Energy Saving Week runs until Friday 31 January. It is an information campaign, supported by the UK government and the big six fuel companies and delivered by the CAB service, which aims to give people clear practical advice on how to cut their energy costs. The information will be available at local CAB offices across the country all week, and also at www.bigenergysavingweek.org.uk, or by calling the special helpline on 0808 808 2282.
The section on recommendations from our report reads as follows:
Evidence from Scottish CAB Service clients suggests that consumer energy issues are becoming an increasing issue in Scotland. Despite policy and energy supplier efforts to support those who need it most, more needs to be done to support consumers to deal with a variety of energy issues including unaffordable repayment plans and navigating the complex array of information designed to help consumers to switch.
Below, we make a series of recommendations to energy suppliers and to governments and those supporting consumers.
For energy suppliers
- Prepayment meters should be automatically fixed at the lowest possible tariff in order to tackle the poverty premium faced by many customers.
- Repayment plans should be established quickly and in consultation with the customer if they fall into arrears. Repayments should be set at affordable rates and clients should be able to negotiate repayment rates based on their income.
- The contact details for specific departments and the types of issues they can deal with should be made clearly available to avoid consumers being passed between departments at their own expense.
- In recognition of the expense and time commitment often required when calling energy suppliers, suppliers should offer call-back services and wherever possible, free phone numbers for all customers including mobile phone users
- Initiatives such as the Warm Homes Discount should be made more accessible. This includes making applications available offline to ensure that all clients are able to apply.
- In line with the requirements of existing license conditions, suppliers must ensure that any marketing and sales practices encouraging customers to switch suppliers give customers full and accurate information to allow them to make an informed decision. This information should be based on the customer’s current and expected usage.
- Heating oil companies should allow households to pay for their oil over longer periods to make the costs of heating their home more affordable.
For government and other bodies supporting consumers
- Abrupt halts to benefits can leave people without energy, food and with mounting debt that they are not in a position to repay. Government at all levels must take these consequences into account when making decisions about benefits, particularly around sanctions.
- Additional reductions to benefits from the under-occupancy penalty (the ‘bedroom tax’) can create a tipping point for those budgeting on a minimal income. The pressure of increasing energy costs should be taken into consideration when people apply for discretionary housing payments.
- Housing associations should make sure old tenants’ names are removed from utility accounts and that new tenants understand how to operate items such as boilers and storage heaters.
Note on Transfer of Consumer Responsibilities
In April 2014 the UK Government will transfer responsibility for speaking out for consumers across post, energy and, in Scotland, water to Citizens Advice Scotland and Citizens Advice (England and Wales). Citizens Advice Scotland will also take on a Great Britain-wide helpline for complex energy or post complaints. Both of these are currently the responsibility of an organisation called Consumer Futures, which will be absorbed into the Citizens Advice service. This is the last in a series of Government reforms to make it easier for consumers to know where to turn for help, and ensure they have an effective champion. We've already beefed up our role in representing consumers across other issues like payday loans, and now provide an advice service for people with consumer problems which can be accessed via 03454 04 05 06 or www.citizensadvice.org.uk.