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Spend & Save

Consuming issues: Npower gets my vote for worst company in UK

You probably have your own nomination for Britain's worst company, BP or Santander perhaps, but my money is on npower. Although most big energy firms combine high prices with poor service, npower has distinguished itself by putting in an outstandingly bad performance over the past few years.

It's not just its irritating insistence on using a lower case N, though that grates; but its outlandish spivery: rogue doorstop selling, debt collection harrassment, and, most extraordinarily of all, its attempted diddling of 1.8 million customers.

Like other members of the Big Six (British Gas, e.on, EDF, Scottish Power and Scottish & Southern), npower gets away with breaching normal standards of corporate behaviour because it supplies an essential product in a malfunctioning market overseen by a weak regulator. Being owned by RWE, a German power giant, probably doesn't help: the four Continentally controlled members of the Big Six are generally worse than British Gas and Scottish & Southern, the two UK-owned ones.

Npower – the modern incarnation of three former regional monopolies; Midlands Electricity, Yorkshire Electricity and Northern Electric – is not cheap. When its latest 5 per cent rise takes effect on 4 January it will again be the second costliest supplier after Scottish Power, charging standard dual fuel homes £1,258 annually.

In the new Consumer Focus customer service rankings, npower had more complaints than any other supplier, earning a desultory two stars out of five, along with the less complained about EDF and ScottishPower.

One example of npower's attitude toward the public can be gleaned from the way it handled changes to its calculation of gas bills three years ago. A few householders skilled at maths complained they were being overcharged. Last February, after intervention by the regulator Ofgem, npower agreed to repay 200,000 people £1.2m, £6 each.

Consumer Focus suspected the top-off was far greater and spent the next 18 months fighting the recalcitrant supplier. Two months ago as the soon to be abolished watchdog verged on launching a court case, npower agreed to refund 1.8 million customers £70m, 58 times the payout agreed by Ofgem.

In 2008, The Sunday Times found npower sales people were routinely tricking householders into switching supply, by making them sign a form without revealing it was a contract, lying about standing charges, exploiting people with poor English, and – that old standby – pretending to be "from the electricity board".

Npower – which at the time had the highest number of mis-selling complaints – said it was "genuinely shocked" by the undercover investigation, adding: "We pride ourselves on the professionalism of our sales team." Ofgem fined it £1.8m.

More recently, Which? recounted npower's long harrassment of a customer who claimed he was being overcharged. Christopher Poncelot received 15 incorrect bills and 14 visits from debt collection agencies. His four-year saga ended at Northampton County Court in September. Ordering npower to pay £3,000 damages and £20,000 costs, Judge Bray described npower's conduct as: "The oppressive and unacceptable conduct of a large company over a small individual."

I'm sure most of npower's 7,600 workforce are fine individuals – blame lies with its leadership. A new chief executive, Volker Beckers, appointed in January, may end the awfulness. Then again, he was chief financial officer for the preceding seven years.

What can you do if you're an npower customer? Switch. Almost any other supplier will do.


Heroes and Villians: Fish suppers all round ... but not clementines

Villain: Pret A Manger

I take my hat off to Pret for its tasty, fresh sandwiches; ethical sourcing of ingredients; willingness to replace very fatty lines with slimmer alternatives; and introduction of calorie counts underneath each product – unlike almost every other eating out chain. But 60p for a clementine? That is taking the pith.

Hero: Sodexo

The French contract caterer is to serve sustainable fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council to one million diners a week at 929 canteen sites including Colchester Garrison, Chelsea Flower Show, Eton College and Manchester Royal Infirmary. True, we've known about overfishing for years but this is a noble step.