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

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
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

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    The benefits of being in Recruitment at SThree...

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: SThree, International Recruitme...

    Test Analyst - UAT - Credit Risk

    £280 - £300 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Test Analyst, Edinburgh, Credit Ris...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little