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

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.

Twitter: @TerenceBlacker

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

PROMOTED VIDEO
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

    £450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

    Senior Analyst - ALM Data - Banking - Halifax

    £350 - £400 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Analyst, ALM Data, Halifax, ...

    Java developer - Banking - London - Up to £600/day

    £500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Java developer - Banking - London - Up to £600/d...

    Liquidity Reporting-Basel III-LCR-Bank-£400/day

    £400 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Liquidity Reporting - Basel III - LCR - Ba...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz