News: Scottish Power homes face rise in winter bills

US investment guru to front £2m ad campaign for child trust fund; Nationwide scraps 0 per cent transfer deal on its credit cards; base rate on hold
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The Independent Online

Five million Scottish Power gas and electricity customers will see their bills go up by as much as 12 per cent.

The price rises - up to 8 per cent for electricity and 12 per cent for gas - were announced last week and will take effect from 17 October. They will add £67 to the average annual fuel bill for Scottish Power customers, according to consumer body Energywatch - and, with colder weather now approaching, the effects of bigger bills will soon be felt.

Since April 2003, gas prices at Scottish Power have risen by 31.5 per cent, while electricity has soared by 28.2 per cent. However, the company is not alone.

Last month, British Gas added 14.2 per cent to the average bill of nearly 15 million customers. And in July, Powergen announced its fourth gas bill increase in 18 months.

Scottish Power, like its rivals, blamed the hike on rising wholesale prices for gas and said it was "unfortunate" that it had to pass on part of this extra cost. Wholesale gas prices doubled in the 12 months to 1 August this year.

Consumer groups, meanwhile, point out that switching to a capped deal or changing provider can help to keep a lid on costs.

Boost for babies

The Government has turned to a US financial guru to try to encourage more British parents to invest their child trust fund vouchers. Alvin Hall, an author and television presenter, has been hired as part of a £2m advertising campaign. This will include free guide books for parents, and interactive TV adverts.

Less than half of all parents with a child born on or after 1 September 2002 have cashed in their £250 voucher (£500 for low-income families). The money is intended to grow tax-free in either a cash deposit or shares-based fund.

The vouchers have been available to invest since 6 April this year. Apathy or lack of certainty on the part of parents about what to do with them are thought to be preventing wider take-up of the scheme. But every day that a voucher lies unused represents another day's lost interest.

The taxman has now hired Mr Hall to develop a guide that takes parents through the different types of child trust fund, using their attitude to risk as a starting point in making a decision about where to invest. Those averse to risk are likely to be drawn to a deposit account that offers the safest home for the money. Those prepared to accept a higher level of risk over 18 years can invest the money in a stock market fund; in its final years, the investment will be siphoned off into a safer deposit account.

The guide is available both as a booklet and online at www.ctfhelp.com. Parents with digital interactive TV sets can click on the ads for extra help.

If parents have still done nothing 12 months after the voucher was issued, it will be invested for them by the taxman in a stock market fund chosen at random.

'Rate tart' offer axed

Nationwide building society has scrapped 0 per cent deals on balance transfers for credit card customers.

It said it was abandoning the 0 per cent offers in favour of a lower annual percentage rate (APR), to make its charges clearer to customers.

"The 0 per cent [on balance transfers] does not mean there is no cost to the consumer," a spokes-man said. Most of these deals require customers to pay a transfer fee upfront, he stressed - "usually 2 per cent of the balance".

To complicate the picture, Nationwide points out that many credit card lenders offering a 0 per cent balance transfer deal use the customer's monthly repayments to pay off this cheap debt first. New purchases, attracting a higher rate of interest, are racked up on the card.

Nationwide is retaining its current 0 per cent deals for new purchases.

In the past few months, a growing number of lenders, including Barclaycard, Virgin Money, Halifax and Egg, have all introduced a 2 per cent fee - capped at between £38 and £50 - on balance transfers. The fee has crept in as lenders try to discourage so-called "rate tarts" - customers who switch their debt between 0 per cent transfer deals, rather than paying it off.

Studies from the accountancy firm Price-waterhouseCoopers and Bristol Business School have predicted the death of 0 per cent offers.

Bank sticks at 4.5%

The Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee has voted to keep interest rates on hold at 4.5 per cent for the second month in a row.

Its decision on Thursday was widely expected because statistics for August showed that inflation had edged up to 2.4 per cent, its highest level for nine years.

Meanwhile, the Halifax house price index revealed that prices rose by 1.2 per cent in September - down from 1.9 per cent in August. By this measure, the market is on track for annual growth of 3 per cent.

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