A people's rebellion against the "Big Six" energy suppliers is under way, with fed-up consumers taking action into their own hands in an attempt to win fairer prices.
Tens of thousands of customers are joining new collective energy switching services, which help them to barter for better deals as a large group, rather than as individuals. Others are simply turning to alternative suppliers for their gas and electricity. Thousands have also signed up to the "End the Big Six Energy Fix" campaign launched in The Independent last week.
Pressure is also growing on the Government to offer more help to victims of fuel poverty. It was revealed yesterday that the number of pensioners dying of hypothermia has doubled in the past five years.
In the winter of 2006-7, 950 patients were treated in hospital for hypothermia, according to official figures from the NHS Information Centre. Last winter the figure grew to 1,876. Hypothermia deaths climbed from 135 to 260, while over the same five years average gas prices soared by 40 per cent.
As The Independent revealed on Saturday, the Big Six suppliers – British Gas, EDF, Npower, SSE, ScottishPower, E.on and SSE – are set to announce record profits for 2011 of £15bn – a rise of £2bn in just 12 months.
Consumers are now starting to take matters into their own hands in pursuit of fairer prices. More than 10,000 people a day are joining the Big Switch campaign, launched by the consumer organisation Which? and the pressure group 38 Degrees. The scheme aims to use the collective bargaining power of bill-payers to secure better energy deals.
Richard Lloyd, the executive director of Which? said: "We want people to get their friends and family to involved. The greater the numbers, the stronger our bargaining power will be in our negotiations with the energy companies."
A similar campaign was launched last month by the not-for-profit company thePeoplesPower. Its founder, Mike Shamash, said: "It's appalling to see how big the profits of the Big Six are. They are making far too much money and the whole market seems to be tied to them. We reckon anyone using group power through services such as ours or Which? could see savings of £100 or more."
Anger spilled out into offices of the Big Six companies last month, when activists from the Fuel Poverty Action group campaigned to highlight the increasing numbers of people forced into fuel poverty. They staged a "heat or eat" protest inside a British Gas headquarters in Staines, occupying a room near the office of its managing director, Phil Bentley, for six hours.
One of the smaller energy suppliers, the Co-op, has also accused the Big Six of making it difficult for consumers to escape from expensive tariffs by charging punishing exit penalties. The company's Nigel Mason said: "Tying people in is a barrier to open competition. We need to be giving people a fair and honest deal, passing on price cuts as fast as we can and helping people manage their energy bills." The Co-op, which is owned by its customers, has pledged to pay the penalties of householders who switch to it.
The focus is now on EDF, which will announce its 2011 profits on Thursday. Financial analysts are predicting that the company made £3.8bn last year, an increase of 435 per cent over 2010. The Shadow Energy Secretary, Caroline Flint, joined the clamour for change yesterday. "The energy market has to be made to work better for pensioners and other customers," she said. "Complicated tariffs mean too many are overpaying for gas and electricity."
Labour wants pensioners aged over 75 to be given the lowest tariffs on offer, and to have that guaranteed by law. "To ensure a fair deal for all consumers, we need to open up the energy companies' books so people can see for themselves at what price they buy and sell energy," Ms Flint added.
Gavin Hayes, of the Compass think-tank, which is co-ordinating the End the Big Six Energy Fix campaign, made a fresh call for people to support it. "The energy fat cats want people to do absolutely nothing so they can cash in their windfall bonuses and carry on as if it's business as usual, while millions suffer in the cold," he said. "But people have the power stop this."
Case study: 'We're not doing this for a fast buck'
Fed up with massive energy bills, Mike Shamash decided to do something about it. After finding out about a Dutch website which allowed people to sign up for cheaper energy through group bargaining power, he realised the same could be done here.
"I had been looking to set something up in renewable energy," he said.
"But my son showed me details of the Dutch scheme and I thought it was great."
He started work on the not-for-profit organisation, thePeoplesPower, and launched the website in January. His aim is simple – to get 10,000 people to sign up and then use their collective power to negotiate better prices.
"We're not doing this for a fast buck, we're doing this because we believe in this. However, we're focused on the green side of things, " Mr Shamash said.
Power to the people: How to fight back
* You can sign up to support the End the Big Six Energy Fix campaign at http://action.compassonline.org.uk/big6share.
* To sign up for thePeoplesPower, go to www.thepeoplespower.co.uk. The not-for-profit company hopes to be ready to negotiate with energy firms from the beginning of April.
* To sign up for the Big Switch, the new collective switching campaign launched by Which? and 38 Degrees, go to www.whichbigswitch.co.uk before 31 March.
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