Millions of people may be mis-sold gas and electricity when smart-meter technology is rolled out across the country, the consumer group Which? has warned. The Government-sanctioned plan will see up to 53 million old gas and electricity meters swapped for devices that calculate and display for customers the amount and cost of energy being used.
Which? says it is concerned that the big six energy firms that dominate the market are preparing to use the nationwide installation programme as a way to sell expensive gadgets and get customers to sign up to different and potentially costly tariffs: "It would be very wrong if energy companies used the installation of smart meters as a way to get a foot in the door for their salespeople. Most consumers wouldn't want an energy salesperson calling on the phone or at the door, never mind being allowed into their home for an hour or more while an installation takes place," Jenny Driscoll, head of campaigns at Which?, said.
The consumer group is calling for the big six energy suppliers – which between them control more than 90 per cent of the energy supplied to homes – to sign up to a "don't sell, just install" code. In February, Ofgem launched an investigation into mis-selling and set up a hotline for consumers to report unscrupulous sales tactics used by their supplier.
What is more, the UK's biggest energy firm, British Gas, which shocked consumers on Friday by raising gas prices by 18 per cent and electricity by 16 per cent, is currently recruiting installers, promising to pay bumper commissions for meeting sales targets, a move condemned by the watchdog Consumer Focus: "Sales of energy products and services during the installation of smart meters could open a Pandora's box of mis-selling. The smart meter roll-out will give energy suppliers unprecedented access to almost every home in the country," Zoe McLeod, energy expert at Consumer Focus, said.
Ofgem is currently investigating pricing and says that it will not tolerate the roll-out of smart meters leading to yet another round of mis-selling. "We would condemn the use of any selling approach or practice during the installation visit that undermined customer trust, an Ofgem spokesman said. "The Government's position is clear: no consumer should be sold to without having agreed to this in advance."
In response, Christine McGourty, director of Energy UK, which represents gas and electricity suppliers, said it would safeguard against hard selling: "If customers have given consent, any sales activities will be conducted in a fair, transparent, appropriate and professional manner. This will allow interested customers to understand and sign up to new services at the visit if they want to do so, while at the same time protecting them from unwanted sales."
Meanwhile, British Gas has been roundly condemned for its huge price rises. Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said it would force thousands of people into fuel poverty: "This latest round of price hikes will be the final straw that drives them over the edge into serious debt and hardship. We already see cases of self-rationing and self-disconnection, where people on low incomes who can't afford rapidly rising gas and electricity bills decide their only option is to go without the heating they need."