Simon Read: Broken? The UK's energy market is in little pieces as far as confused consumers are concerned


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The Independent Online

Energy companies received a staggering 5.6 million complaints last year. That works out at around a fifth of all households in Britain. And that means that if you haven't been compelled to complain, then one of your neighbours probably has.

Does that come as a surprise? Sadly not. The energy companies have proved to be leaders in putting up prices and giving us bad service for many years.

The damning figures were published yesterday by consumer group Which? and prompted the following response from Energy UK, which is effectively a mouthpiece for the dominant Big Six power firms. It said: "When you are dealing with nearly 27 million customers things can occasionally go wrong."

Occasionally? That might be the right word to use if, say, things went wrong for one in 10,000 of us or even, at a stretch, one in 1,000. But "occasionally" is not the word I'd choose to describe an industry that generates complaints from one in five of its customers.

Feel free to choose your own word to describe the energy industry: I'm confident it won't be a positive one. The word that Which? executive director Richard Lloyd chose to use to describe the UK's energy market yesterday was "broken".

It's broken because customers are fed up with being hit with soaring bills while they see energy companies posting booming profits. For instance French giant EDF this week revealed that it raked in a £1.7bn profit last year, which analysts reckon mean it trousered £53 a second from its UK arm.

John Robertson, an MP who sits on the energy select committee, said the figure was "another disgraceful example of energy barons profiting from customer misery".

Bad feeling is now running so high that just one in five customers trust the energy suppliers while eight in 10 are worried about rising bills, according to Which? research. It says "the energy market is not working for its customers" and yesterday demanded a full inquiry.

It wants the regulators to refer the energy market to the Competition and Markets Authority and is asking energy companies to end practices that unfairly increase costs and damage customer service.

It also says the big six energy companies' supply and generation businesses should be separated to reduce concerns that they could be manipulating prices to their own advantage. It has called on the Government to control costs added to consumers' bills and to make the Green Deal fairer.

"Millions of people are unhappy with the service they receive from the suppliers which, combined with low levels of trust, is yet more evidence that more must be done to fix the broken energy market," said Mr Lloyd.

Earlier this week energy Secretary Ed Davey called on regulators to investigate the profits being made by the Big Six companies through supplying gas.

The LibDem MP wants Ofgem to examine whether profit margins, in some cases five times higher for gas than for supplying household electricity, should be the subject of a market investigation.

If there is evidence of a monopoly, as many believe, then the likes of British Gas, by far the biggest of our energy suppliers, could be forced to be broken up.

There are lots of issues here but the heart of it is this: we should be able to afford to heat and light our homes and know we're paying a fair price for energy.

Ensuring that all of us, especially vulnerable people, can afford adequate heating requires government intervention and aid. Making the energy market fair has to involve breaking the current stranglehold of the Big Six.

Twitter: @simonnread

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