Terence Blacker: The day my power supplier gave me a £5,914 electric shock
The Independent’s columnist is mystified by the arrival of a 20-page utility bill from E.ON Energy
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Monday 10 December 2012
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.
- 1 Crystal meth addict 'gouged out his eyes and ate them' while high on drug, Australian MP claims
- 2 As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
- 3 The ten most unequal developed countries in the world
- 4 Saudi Arabia 'seeking to head United Nations Human Rights Council'
- 5 Irish people are travelling home from all over the world so they can vote to legalise gay marriage
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
Report finds that Britain's wages are the most unequal in Europe
Almost a third of school pupils believe 'Muslims are taking over our country', study claims
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
Labour leadership: Battle lines are drawn as members battle over party's ideology at first hustings of the contest
iJobs Money & Business
£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...
£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...
£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...
£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...
Day In a Page
On the market for the first time in more than 50 years, this six-bedroom home is a project with vast potential - spread over three floors of living space.
This five-bedroom home comes with a range of outbuildings including a large barn which could be converted into a self-contained granny-flat or rental.
Surrounded by rolling countryside, this four-bedroom barn conversion comes with a self-contained, one-bedroom annexe that could serve as an office or a holiday let.
Located near Harrogate town centre, this five-bedroom Victorian terrace is arranged over three storeys while a current study serves as an optional sixth bedroom.
A ground-floor flat in a country house, located a mile from Sway; this two-bedroom home would make an ideal weekend retreat on the edge of the New Forest.
On a popular residential lane in Caterham on the Hill, this four-bedroom family home offers a secluded garden and a convenient location for local schools and public transport.
Just a short walk from Westerham green, this three-bedroom cottage has a light kitchen with exposed brickwork and double doors that lead to a south-facing garden.
In a prime spot opposite the River Thames, this one-bedroom flat has an 18sq ft reception room with glass doors that open out to a private terrace.
Set in the hills above Llanwrda Village, west Wales, this 18th-century three-bedroom farmhouse has holiday-let potential from a separate barn conversion and annexe.
This charming end-of-terrace townhouse is arranged over three floors, with two double bedrooms and a private courtyard garden located at the rear of the property.
This four-bedroom Edwardian home offers a combination of original features and contemporary design after a renovation by the current owners.
Located in the University area, this semi-detached five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors - there's even a rear garden and off-road parking too.
Only a few minutes' drive from the charming town of Marlow, this two-bedroom home sits on the private riverside estate of Harleyford.
This detached four-bedroom home in Middleyard is arranged over two floors, with features that include a wood-burning stove and bespoke oak staircase.
In a row of eight detached Georgian residences, this five-bedroom home offers views of The Sound, Mount Edgcumbe and Cornwall from its impressive veranda and full-length balcony.
If you love cooking for friends this two-bedroom flat - complete with views of the iconic Battersea Power Station and an open-plan kitchen/dining area - will go down a treat.
Located above Grasmere village, this five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors and offers countryside views across Grasmere Lake towards Silver Howe.
Surrounded by the Western fells, this five-bedroom Georgian home retains many original features including panel-plastered ceilings, sash windows and fireplaces.
This six-bedroom home is set amongst three acres of grounds. Currently a large family home, Clift Hill has potential to make a B&B, subject to change of use permissions.
A former period coach house, Glebe Farm Stable is now a three-bedroom cottage with a double car barn, office, kennels and an outbuilding that's currently used as a gym.
Set sail for this four-bedroom farmhouse in Cowes. With five acres of land and an indoor pool, this home oozes character. There is even potential to let a one-bedroom annexe.
Surrounded by woodland, this five-bedroom manor house has plenty of outdoor storage space in the form of three converted loose boxes, two smaller outhouses and a woodstore.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with a double carport, useful workshop, garden and two walkways that offer views of the adjacent countryside.
With space for an equestrian business, a greenhouse for growing your own veg, a wine store and a gym; this five-bedroom home has all the ingredients for a country retreat.
This four-bedroom home has exposed brick chimneys and a vaulted ceiling in a breakfast room that's ideal for summer entertaining - the doors open to the patio and garden.
The decked roof terrace of this two-bedroom flat is perfect for summer drinks while large windows and ample storage space make for a light and spacious interior.
Surrounded by approximately 15 acres of grounds, this six-bedroom grade II-listed home has been extensively refurbished yet retains many period features.
This four-bedroom home comes with a two-bedroom cottage and commercial office, with planning to extend, in a stunning courtyard setting.
In a pretty Norfolk village, this four-bedroom family home is surrounded by landscaped gardens, with even a self-contained annex for guests.
A few miles from the seaside at Perranporth, this four-bedroom farmhouse sits amongst nine acres of idyllic grounds - including a lake and two barns used as holiday lets.
This five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors of a converted Victorian hospital, offering spectacular views of the Pentland Hills - only three miles from the city centre.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with grounds that span to approximately 2.5 acres, as well as two large patio areas and a double garage.
This four-bedroom cottage is a Grade II-listed town house, well-located for the thriving market town of Nailsworth.
A four-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a stunning period property in North Yorkshire, with two kitchens and a large south-west facing garden.
This high-spec two-bedroom home is part of a smart collection of new flats at Beaufort Park and has a large decked balcony that's perfect for summer drinks.
Capitalise on the fabulous views of Trevone Bay by taking two homes and creating one spacious boutique B&B. Just a cliff-top walk from Padstow.
Overlooking a golf course, this six-bedroom Edwardian detached home spans four storeys and retains many period features including the original, operational servants' bells...
On the edge of the city, this six-bedroom home comes with an outdoor swimming pool and a large garage block that has annexe potential.
In a Grade II-listed manor just outside of Bath, this three-bedroom home is arranged on two floors with a skylight in a vaulted roof line.
Open the living room's bi-fold wooden doors to reveal a retro-style kitchen, and a conservatory leading to a paved garden at this three-bedroom home.
A Grade II-listed, four-bedroom home, in a charming Somerset village, with a two-storey studio that could be converted into a holiday cottage
A modern four-bedroom Victorian home, within walking distance to the high street
A luxury apartment in the Gothic mansion of Wyfold Court in Kingwood, offers six bedrooms spread over three floors and a turret
This school conversion, near Stockwell Tube, oozes New York loft style. The one-bedroom flat features double height ceilings and exposed brick work
This six-bedroom Georgian home is on three floors with open fireplaces, a two-oven Aga, an annexe, and cottage gardens with outbuildings and a car barn
High Crest House covers an impressive 9384sq ft, with almost three acres of grounds including a tennis court and summer house enclosed by electric gates
A six-bedroom farmhouse with separate accommodation in converted stables. Situated in the village of Church Aston, within walking distance to the market town
A two-bedroom flat with under-heated walnut floors and bespoke built-in storage. The Tube and Clapham Common are a short stroll away
A refurbished seven-bedroom townhouse with staff quarters, cinema room, superb gym, steam room and plunge pool
A minimnalist four-bedroom home designed to the highest spec, featuring glass walls and a kitchen space lit by a glass roof