Consumer groups called for a total ban on doorstep selling by the power giants yesterday after one of the biggest suppliers, Scottish & Southern Energy, was humbled in the Court of Appeal over misleading sales practices.
Three appeal court judges threw out SSE's appeal against its conviction at Guildford Crown Court last year for tricking householders in 2008 and 2009 in what trading standards officers described as a "David and Goliath" victory. SSE, Britain's second biggest energy supplier, is due to be sentenced on 4 May.
Trading standards officers from Surrey County Council had caught SSE using an "illegal script" to persuade householders to switch their supply from rival operators. A doorstep seller claimed he had a print out which showed consumers were paying too much with their current tariff, but the information was missing from the print out and householders were given the impression they were overpaying when that was not necessarily so.
Surrey County Council said: "The seller didn't actually have a clue but the sales script was cleverly designed to put potential customers on the back foot and to open the door to a sale."
After a five-day trial at Guildford Crown Court, SSE was found guilty last May of two counts of taking part in misleading selling practices between September 2008 and July 2009. At the time of its conviction it said it wanted to reassure customers, and potential customers, that it no longer used the script.
In July, SSE suspended all doorstep selling. All of the "Big Six" suppliers, bar E.On, have now voluntarily stopped selling door-to-door, a practice long beset by accusations of mis-selling.
Stephen Forbes, SSE's director of sales, marketing and energy services, said the company was "very disappointed" with the outcome of its appeal. "We will now consider our next steps, but it is highly likely we will not seek to take this issue any further," he said.
"This case was initially brought over two years ago and since then we have ceased all doorstep sales activity in Britain, becoming the first energy supplier to stop commission-based doorstep selling of electricity and gas. High standards in energy sales are absolutely essential and the recent steps we have taken demonstrate SSE's commitment to them."
Despite the case, SSE has the best customer service record among the Big Six, rated five stars by the Government watchdog Consumer Focus. It has nine million domestic gas and electricity accounts.
A Surrey County Council trading standards officer, Steve Playle, described the case as "David and Goliath" – with SSE having a "turnover something like £28bn" and Surrey Trading Standards having a budget of "just £2m".