Julian Knight: Let’s hope others follow npower’s smart-meter lead

At last, a consumer victory as firm says installation will not be used to sell other products in our homes

The first of the big-six energy companies has announced that when it starts installing smart meters in millions of British homes it won’t use it as an opportunity to sell other products and tariffs. Npower’s “install not sell” commitment is a victory for consumer protection, as the fear raised by groups such as Which?, and in this newspaper, is that smart meters will be used as an opportunity to pressure-sell people in their own homes.

Ever since the deregulation of the home-energy sector we have had a barrage of energy mis-selling, so just imagine what will happen when firms are allowed access to more than 20 million homes across the country. Earlier this year we discovered that British Gas was recruiting smart-meter installers on the premise that they would earn potentially bumper commissions from selling to people in their own homes.

The danger to vulnerable consumers such as the elderly is as clear as day, particularly as there are expected to be around 53 million smart meters installed by 2020. Out of all the energy companies, npower has shown the most far-sighted approach in a range of areas. Last year, for example, it agreed to compensate thousands of customers who had overpaid for gas. It did this in co-operation with Consumer Focus, rather than being dragged to it kicking and screaming. Now let’s hope that the other big energy firms follow npower’s example over install not sell.

Where to save now?

How can you even match inflation, never mind beat it? While I was on holiday, NS&I withdrew its tax-free, inflation-beating bond, and last week the Post Office stopped offering a similar product two days before its advertised deadline for investment.

When NS&I launched its bond just four months ago I was reassured by officials that this was not a short-term sojourn into the market, and that they anticipated the bond being available for a sustained period. But the lure of beating inflation and official sensitivity about drawing too much cash from deposit-taking banks and building societies has clearly choked the life out of this commitment.

Savers are left with the choice of either leaving their money on deposit and seeing it reduce in real terms, or risking it all on the stock market or other less-safe investments.

Since we entered this period of artificially low interest rates, the people who have suffered the most have been pensioners and those who rely on their savings. Without wanting to sound like a Dickensian character, the thrifty are paying for the profligate. (Strange how the language around savings seems so old fashioned – perhaps a bit like the concept itself.)

The truth is, we are living through the most sustained attack on savers in living memory. For over two years it’s been next to impossible to grow your investments – without taking quite substantial, and, for many, unacceptable risks – above inflation. And, with the abolition of these bonds, savers have even fewer options.

Vintage Ryanair

For sheer bloody brass neck and chutzpah you have to have a grudging admiration for Ryanair. Told by the OFT that it and the other airlines have to cut the fees they charge for booking tickets using a card, what do they do? Cave in? Not a bit of it.

No, last week the airline said that the only way that passengers will be able to avoid its £6 card-admin fee is if they take out Ryanair’s own Passport MasterCard. Being a prepaid card, it has to be loaded in advance. The press statement to accompany it is pure, vintage Ryanair (“vintage” as in floating the idea of charging to go the toilet, or for having a wheelchair waiting on leaving the plane). It goes: “We have suffered from criticism for some time that customers do not know where to get prepaid MasterCards. So we decided that to make it easier for customers they could start getting them from our website.”

That’s thoughtful of them; they make it easier for us. Usually I enjoy a good moan at companies and their policies but really there is no point with Ryanair. It is a law unto itself. In some ways it is the most transparent company there is – it doesn’t try and fool you with gushing press releases about how much it values its customers, it doesn’t appoint people to ludicrous job titles, such as head of customer vision or insight. Unlike the banks, most retailers and utility firms, it doesn’t smile at you while cutting you off at the knees; you know exactly what you’re getting.

Ed comes over all unnecessary

Ed Miliband sounded a little like the demented Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland when he called for new powers so that bankers who had crashed the world economy could be struck off.

Hardly the most controversial comment to make to the Trades Union Congress, and also completely unnecessary. There are already sanctions for executives at any company, be it in the banking sector or elsewhere – Equitable Life is a case in point. But these just aren’t used anywhere near enough.

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