Although British Gas is the most expensive gas supplier in the UK, nearly eight out of 10 of the people who use it aren't in any rush to seek out a better deal. A new survey from uSwitch.com, an online service enabling consumers to compare gas prices, shows 74 per cent of British Gas customers – 17.5 million people – stay with the company out of habit.
However, the survey also reveals that one in 10 customers – 2.35 million people – have had difficulties dealing with British Gas, with more than 800,000 encountering billing problems and incorrect meter readings.
Even though deregulation was introduced in the late Eighties and more than 20 energy companies operate in the UK, around two thirds of homes have not switched supplier. Many have been put off by tales of customers who have encountered problems switching.
"Clearly it's misplaced loyalty that keeps people with British Gas," says Andrew Salmon, uSwitch.com's managing director. "It's a dinosaur, relying on customer complacency and inertia, and it's vital consumers know they can save money by switching away from it."
However, a spokeswoman for British Gas questions the motives behind the survey. "Uswitch is not a consumer body or pressure group, it's a broker taking money from other suppliers with whom it has commercial contracts. British Gas is the only major supplier that doesn't have commercial links with uSwitch."
Even so, British Gas was last month fined £200,000 by industry regulator Ofgem for wrongly obstructing customer transfers. So another uSwitch finding – that 15 per cent of British Gas customers, nearly 3.5 million people, have tried to switch to a different supplier only to give up because the process was made too difficult for them – seems plausible.
One Independent on Sunday reader had a nightmare experience with British Gas after she was switched to another supplier without her knowing, leading to 10 months of hassle.
Elizabeth White bought the top-floor flat of a Victorian conversion in Herne Hill, south London, in April last year. Three months later she received a letter out of the blue from British Gas, saying it was sorry she was leaving.
"I rang to say that I wasn't leaving the company and could they tell me who was supposed to be supplying me," Ms White recalls. "They said they didn't know – all they could tell me was that my supply was due to be switched over."
Ms White requested to be re-registered with British Gas. No confirmation letter arrived but at the end of August she received a final demand from the company. She rang to complain as she hadn't received an initial bill, and British Gas informed her she wasn't actually registered as a customer. It then tried to register her again, asking her to complete a new direct debit mandate.
By December, Ms White still hadn't heard back, so she phoned British Gas – to discover there had been a problem with the registration forms. She had to register yet again.
In January Ms White received a letter welcoming her to British Gas. But a month later a final demand for £330.69 arrived, even though she had never received a bill in the first place. She contacted British Gas, which told her that she should ignore the red bill. Three weeks later, a British Gas engineer visited the property and discovered that her details had been confused with those of the ground-floor flat.
But that wasn't the end of the problem. Once more, Ms White heard nothing from British Gas; when she contacted the company, she was told it was sending out another engineer to double-check her meter number. When he arrived, it transpired that her own details were still being muddled with her neighbour's. A week later she received yet another final demand – this time for £212.01.
Eventually, after Ms White had phoned again, British Gas admitted its mistake and told her she wouldn't have to pay for any of the gas used.
"It was so frustrating," says Ms White. "Every time I called, I spoke to somebody different. I don't see why it couldn't have been resolved last summer, but it wasn't until March this year that an engineer finally came round. And I couldn't switch supplier until it was all sorted out."
British Gas explains that the gas transporter Transco is responsible for connecting properties and had mixed up the meter point reference (MPR) numbers in Ms White's building. Only Transco can rectify such problems, which can take many months – as was the case here.
"This is unfortunately a perfect example of how the complexities of the industry systems and the many parties involved can lead to errors and delays for custo-mers," says a British Gas spokeswoman. "We're sorry it's taken so long to rectify."
Customers who are still determined to switch supplier can find out whether it is worth their while doing so by checking Energywatch's bimonthly price comparison tables on its website (www.energywatch.org.uk).
The following commercial sites, approved by the industry regulator Ofgem, also allow consumers to compare prices: www. saveonyourbills.co.uk; unravelit.co.uk; buy.co.uk and ukpower.co.uk. If you have problems switching supplier, call Energywatch on 08459 060708 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org