At first glance, the large A4 envelope which arrived through the mail last Friday from E.ON Energy seemed like one of those boastful brochures sent out by banks, local councils and utility companies to tell you how brilliantly they have been doing and how carefully they are looking after your interests.
It was not. The envelope contained a 20-page bill. Leafing through it, I saw to my surprise that some of the charges for electricity seemed to date back to April 2003. Then I looked at the first page. It read: “Please pay £5,914.98”.
It was a mistake, surely. Yet there was my name and my address. The bill was, in every respect but the mind-boggling size of it, identical to E.ON bills I have received since the place where I now live was converted from a goose hatchery into a house almost exactly ten years ago.
There was no covering letter. The account summary contained bewildering advice about the CCL Equivalent Charge and the CCL which, after a certain amount of head-scratching, I took to be the Climate Change Levy, and therefore of no particular relevance to my absurdly large amount I was said to owe E.ON.
The bill itself, with items from 2003 to the present, contained occasional notes in the margin. For example, “Why are there two sets of readings and charges? Our electricity prices changed on 5 January 2004. This bill shows one set of meter readings and charges up to this date, and another set from the price change up to your latest reading.” I was none the wiser.
It is shaking, when a large corporation delivers a financial missile like this into one’s private life. Not many people have £6000 in their back pocket to pay for an alleged, ancient debt they never knew they had incurred. The tone of the bill, and the fact that no kind of explanation was thought to be needed, seemed threatening. A communication which is computerised, jargon-ridden and incomprehensible except for the money it is demanding can feel very much like corporate bullying.
If I was alarmed by this unwelcome pre-Christmas present, I wondered what the effect would be on someone who was more financially vulnerable and easy to frighten.
Is E.ON’s position even legal? My meter has been read regularly over the past decade, and I have paid my bills on time. If they seemed low, I put that down to living for the first time in my life in a modern, low-energy house which uses only a moderate amount of electricity.
I wrote to the company, asking them for some kind of explanation of what was going on, and then turned to Twitter for advice. The speed of response from helpful people, and the level of their expertise, was startling. The Citizens Advice Bureau, I was told, were taking a particular interest in this issue and had contributed to a chat-room on the Mumsnet website. The advice I found there was encouraging. “From July 2007, companies who have through error failed to issue bills will be expected not to bill for any amount which dates back for longer than a year.”
Another tweet sent me to the Energy Retail Association’s own Code of Practice for Accurate Bills: Back Billing for Domestic Customers. It includes a clause which “confirms the suppliers’ commitment to bill customers regularly and accurately, and imposes limitations on the circumstances where customers can be billed for previous unbilled energy that is more than 12 months old.”
I checked those circumstances - customers refusing access to a meter, for example – and none seemed to apply to me.
My sad story, bouncing around Twitter, eventually reached an account called @E.Onhelp. “We’re here to help Terence” wrote their twelper (the term they like to use – there is an E.ON Twelper of the Month). “Are you free for me to call you? Might be easier :)” By now it was Saturday. I decided that a call from the duty twelper, however caring, was unlikely to resolve a £6000 problem.
It is odd, and very much of the moment, that between the caring-sharing and smiley-faces of the online help and blunt threat of the computerised bill, there is no one in the organisation - a normal human being - who could ring or write to me before the bill was sent to explain the problem, and even to reassure me that their error could be resolved.
Whatever has happened, and whether I have indeed been under-charged in the past, the fault is clearly and undeniably with the supplier. Yet, without a word of excuse or explanation, it has expected the customer to compensate it for its own mistakes made over the period of almost a decade – in apparent contradiction to their own industry’s guidelines.
No wonder energy companies have acquired such a miserable reputation.