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.
10 tips for taking out a personal loan
Simon Read: Frozen in time - the expat British pensioners who deserve a better deal
Donald MacInnes: My wasted hours in the retail deserts of Dixons-Carphone
Pension firms must ask consumers more questions, says City Watchdog
Money Insider: Smart alternatives to the pensioner bond
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Dog thinks owner is drowning in lake, dives in and tries to pull him out
- 3 Thank heavens for Louise Mensch and her foul-mouthed tweets to world leaders
- 4 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 5 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
Leaked documents show Ukip leaders approve NHS privatisation once it becomes more 'acceptable to the electorate'
iJobs Money & Business
£16500 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Finance compa...
£30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...
£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...
£25 - 28k + Bonus: Guru Careers: An In-house / Internal Recruiter is needed to...
Day In a Page
Hibernate during winter and make your living during the summer at this busy guesthouse with panoramic sea views, in the village of Lynton
A four-bedroom penthouse next to the Tate with direct views of St Paul's from two floors of luxurious living space
A four-bedroom detached home surrounded by spacious gardens and woodland, close to New Pudsey
An 18th-century, three-bedroom home near Langstone Harbour built from ships beams with vaulted ceilings and wood burning stoves
A five-bedroom semi-detached home with a mix of period and modern features in a popular and convenient location
This five-bedroom red-brick beauty overlooks the village green and sits in just under two acres of land
A three-bedroom villa with self-contained flat, minutes from Lake Windermere
A deceptively spacious, beautifully presented Georgian home with 3000sq ft of living space and five reception rooms
A five-bedroom Victorian home with four receptions, superb gardens and paddock in Pembury
An eight-bedroom house on the south side of the The Green with cinema, wine cellars and summer house
This 17th century beauty is full of rustic cosiness, while the detached home office means you can also run a business
Four exclusive apartments in a Grade II-listed former medical school with 2,275 sq ft of living space and 18ft ceilings
A five-bedroom terraced house on the popular Peterborough Estate, ideally located for both Eel Brook Common and South Park
A state-of-the-art farm-building conversion on the former Cliveden Estate, with 11,420sq ft of internal space, cinema and wine cellar
A three-bedroom, 15th-century cottage with original features in the picturesque village of Sissinghurst
A six-bedroom terraced house with large south-facing roof terrace, cinema room and wine cellar
A new seven-bedroom home built in Queen Anne-style with swimming pool and parkland views in Mortimer
A listed, four-bedroom farmhouse in the rural hamlet of Rushall with detached barn, four acres of gardens and paddocks
A first-floor flat with two bedrooms, a spacious reception room and communal grounds in a leafy part of London
A three-bedroom flat with a spacious rootop terrace and balcony, accessed from a private gated courtyard
A Grade II-listed pile with six bedrooms, stables and 39 acres of grounds in Standlake
A two-bedroom flat with boutique hotel-style interiors, close to the foodie haunt of West End Lane
A two-bedroom flat in a beautiful old vicarage, with many original features, close to the city centre
A three-bedroom 16th-century home with an aga kitchen, private gardens and heated outdoor pool, in Hadleigh
A three-bedrom home in sought-after Queen's Gate Mews, with Italian marble-finished bathrooms
Surrounded by glorious countryside in the village of Udimore, sits this impressive four-kiln oast and barn conversion
A five-bedroom house in the picturesque village of Kettlewell, north Yorkshire
An 18th-century former coaching inn with original staircase, open fireplaces and beams throughout
A Grade II-listed Georgian town house with three bedrooms and a south-facing courtyard, near Arundel Castle
Feel on top of the world at this über chic penthouse on the 37th floor of one of Europe’s tallest blocks.
A Grade II-listed Victorian villa with six bedrooms and two further cottages, all with spectacular sea views
A grade II-listed, Georgian cottage with mature 50ft garden, perfect for summer entertaining
A magnificent Georgian pile with turrets, seven bedrooms, a heated pool and four acres of gardens
Fairoak Farm has five bedroom suites, gym, outdoor swimming pool and golf course
Chic two-bedroom river-fronted flat with a private lift that delivers you directly to your home
A spectacular seven-bedroom Tudor pile, once owned by Henry VIII, with 18 acres of land
A seven-bedroom Georgian property previously used as a picturesque wedding venue
A split-level flat in a church conversion with two en suite bedrooms and 1,200sq ft of living space
A three-bedroom bungalow situated behind an impressive stone wall, £645,000
Windsor Castle overlooks this three-bedroom Victorian cottage located on one of Windsor's smartest roads
Chapel House is a former vicarage with nine bedrooms in the beautiful Upper Wye Valley
A five-bedroom B&B and separate owner's accomodation with potential for conversion
Enjoy summer by the Thames in this two double-bedroom converted warehouse in Rotherhithe village