Money News: British Gas homes face 12.4% rise after third hike in a year

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The Independent Online

Millions of British Gas customers face more misery after the supplier announced plans to put its charges up for the third time in 12 months.

From 4 September, gas prices will rise by 12.4 per cent, while electricity prices will go up by 9.4 per cent. British Gas blamed "cost increases in the wholesale energy market" for its decision.

The latest hikes will add £109 a year to an average user's bill, according to price-comparison service SimplySwitch.com.

"We expected British Gas to announce another round of price increases to address its losses," said SimplySwitch's spokeswoman, Karen Darby. "With spiralling wholesale prices, it will have a real job maintaining its margins on a dwindling customer base."

The supplier last put prices up in March - by 22 per cent for both gas and electricity - after a rise of 14.2 per cent in September last year. Its latest hikes come just days after EDF Energy announced it was putting its gas prices up by 19 per cent and electricity by 9.1 per cent. These increases will take effect from this Tuesday.

All the big UK power suppliers have raised their prices in the past year. But findings from price-comparison service uSwitch.com show the average annual bill on a standard tariff with British Gas is 26 per cent dearer than its cheapest rival.

USwitch adds that there are still big savings to be made by changing supplier - especially if you haven't switched before.

Credit cards: Consumers lose out as HSBC falls into line

HSBC credit-card holders could find themselves being charged extra interest from this week, when the bank changes the way in which it allocates repayments.

It is standard practice in the industry to levy higher rates of interest on cash advances and new purchases made on a credit card, than on balances transferred to the same card. At present, HSBC is one of the few providers - along with Liverpool Victoria and Nationwide building society - to use customer payments to pay off the most expensive debt first.

But from Tuesday it will start applying repayments to transferred balances first. Unless customers pay off their debt in full, items charged at higher interest rates - such as cash advances and new purchases - could be left to continue to accrue interest.

"We are merely following what the rest of the market has already done for some time," says an HSBC spokeswoman.

But Andrew Hagger from the financial analyst Moneyfacts said it was disappointing to see HSBC move away from the "consumer-friendly" order of repayment. He added that this could well be an attempt by HSBC to recoup revenue following a recent ruling from the Office of Fair Trading, which required providers to slash penalty charges on late card payments to a maximum of £12.

Credit card companies make an estimated £500m in extra profits each year by prioritising outstanding balances over new debts.

Financial exclusion: MPs call for doorstep lenders to be curbed

More than 150 MPs have backed a campaign to stop doorstep lenders ripping off borrowers by charging "sky-high" rates of interest.

The National Housing Federation has joined forces with the pressure group Debt on our Doorstep to lobby the Government to introduce strict new regulations.

Doorstep lenders visit people in their own homes to lend money and collect repayments - but they charge rates of interest ranging from around 160 per cent a year to as much as 800 per cent. People on low incomes may not have access to more affordable credit and often have little option but to borrow in this way.

On average, a six-month loan of £100 from a doorstep lender will have a total repayment of £160; the same amount borrowed from a credit union (a community-based organisation, owned and run by its members) will cost just £103.54 overall.

An Early Day Motion tabled in the House of Commons, calling for a cap on the rates charged, has so far received support from more than 150 MPs.

Liz Atkins, spokeswoman for the National Housing Federation, said housing associations were working with credit unions to help the financially excluded.

"But the Government needs to go further if it is really serious about tackling the problem," she added. "It's time to cap the ridiculous rates set by home credit companies and doorstep lenders."

Mortgages: Housing market at its busiest since June '04

The number of new mortgage approvals hit a two-year high in June, according to the latest figures from the British Bankers' Association - suggesting the housing market will remain strong

Its findings show 86,106 new loans were approved for people buying a property last month, the highest figure since June 2004. By comparison, the previous month's total was 81,298. At the same time, however, the value of the average home loan taken out fell to £137,000, its lowest level for three months.

In total, 212,768 mortgages (including remortgages) were approved during June, totalling £22.1bn - the highest number since March this year.

In separate research, the National Association of Estate Agents reported a "positive overall national picture for the June housing market". Although the proportion of first-time buyers fell slightly - to 11.9 per cent, down from 12.5 per cent in May - this was still higher than the levels seen in June 2005 (7.8 per cent).

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