Find out what are your rights as an energy customer and how can you enforce them
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Consumer rights are legal rights which protect you as a consumer whenever you purchase a product or service. These rights are just as relevant for someone buying a hairdryer as they are for someone who purchases energy.
You can think of them as a shield which protects you from companies which might otherwise be able to take advantage of you. This is particularly important in the energy market where the big six energy providers – British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, SSE and Scottish Power – supply more than 90% of the UK population.
Energy consumer rights – why are they important?
Our society is often labelled a consumer society — a culture in which the buying and selling of goods and services plays a key role. For this reason, it is important that we are informed of our rights and obligations as consumers.
Worryingly, a uSwitch.com study carried out in August 2013 found that just 4% of British consumers believe they have a good understanding of their consumer rights. These rights are particularly important in the energy market as 84% of households do not regularly switch energy provider and may be unaware of the deals on offer.
The role of Ofgem
It is energy regulator Ofgem’s job to make sure consumers are protected from high energy bills and mis-selling practices. The organisation oversees the energy market and enforces regulations which gas and electricity suppliers must adhere to.
If any supplier is suspected to be operating outside these regulations, it is Ofgem’s job to step in, run an investigation and fine the supplier if necessary. While Ofgem holds the power to investigate and penalise energy companies, it is often up to individual consumers to understand their rights and file complaints when those rights are violated.
Ofgem’s Retail Market Review
A survey carried out by uSwitch.com in June 2013 revealed that 70% of consumers were overcharged for a household utility over the previous 12 months. A survey carried out just a month later, determined that three quarters of consumers are unable to identify mistakes in their energy bills. If you are part of this majority you can use our handy guide to understanding energy bills.
This confusion surrounding energy bills and pricing has led a number of public figures and institutions to call for reforms. Ofgem’s Retail Market Review, published in June 2013, aims to create a simpler energy market for consumers.
The initiative will see energy suppliers cut the number of plans provided to four core tariffs and replace existing two-tier energy unit pricing systems with a single energy unit price and standing charges. The latter are set fees which cover the cost of supplying a household with power.
Energy consumer rights FAQ
Can my energy supplier up its prices?
Yes. Wholesale oil and gas prices are constantly changing and your energy provider is likely to alter its retail prices accordingly. But don’t worry, they are obligated to let you know at least 30 days in advance.
What can I do if my supplier raises its prices?
If a supplier informs you of an upcoming price rise, the easiest way avoid it is to switch to a cheaper plan. This may require you to switch energy supplier. You can use our price comparison service to shop around for the best gas and electricity deals.
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It is worth noting that you have 20 days from when you were notified of the price increase to inform your supplier that you would like to switch. If you tell them later than this specified deadline, then your next bill will include the price rise.
You can also guard against price rises by selecting a fixed price plan.
Should you decide to remain with your energy supplier despite the price increase, make sure you take a meter reading on the day the rise is applied. You should share this information with your provider to make sure they are able to accurately assess your consumption.
Can energy companies raise my direct debit payments?
Yes. Your energy supplier will usually check your direct debit payments twice a year to compare your real consumption with your estimated consumption. This comparison may reveal that you have been paying more (or less) than your supplier has been charging you. As a result, the supplier can raise your payments to reflect this change.
Under the Direct Debit Guarantee, should your payment increase or decrease, your supplier is under obligation to let you know a minimum of 10 days in advance. If your bill changes and you are not told, you can contact your bank to dispute the charge and seek compensation.
To avoid paying an incorrect amount, you should check your bills against your electric and gas meter readings. You can find out how to do this with our electric meter guide. We recommend informing your energy supplier should any significant event take place within your household that could affect consumption, such as the number of people in your household changing.
If you disagree with an increase, get in touch with your supplier and ask them to explain the new figure. You can dispute their reasoning by providing them with an electric or gas meter reading. Another option to avoid increases would be to consider opting for a fixed price plan.
What if I can’t afford my energy bills?
If you are having trouble paying your gas and electric bills, you should get in touch with your supplier as soon as possible. Energy suppliers must give you advice and work out a payment plan which takes into account what you can afford. Do not agree to a plan you will be unable to fulfil.
If you sign up to a plan but find yourself forced to default, your energy supplier may decide to install a prepayment meter in your household. In certain circumstances, you may be eligible for a grant from an energy charity. You can find more information on our energy debt guide.
For those on benefits, in some circumstances it is possible to join the Fuel Direct scheme. This initiative allows you to pay your fuel arrears directly from your benefits. It applies to those on the following benefits packages: income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support, income-related Employment and Support Allowance and Pension Credit.
Can my energy supplier disconnect me?
Although this rarely happens, it is possible for your energy provider to disconnect you in certain circumstances. Our energy debt guide has more information on why this could happen and what to do if it does.
What if I change my mind about switching energy supplier?
Everyone changes their mind, so don’t worry if you decide you no longer want to switch energy supplier but do act quickly. You may be able to cancel your switch depending on a number of factors. These include whether or not you have a contract, how the deal was sold to you and the contents of the agreement itself.
If you have agreed to change supplier, in writing or verbally, then you have a contract with the supplier. If you did not agree than you do not.
If the agreement was made either at your home or in a public space (such as a shopping centre), then you have a 14 day cooling off period to cancel your contract. You do not need to give a reason.
Keep in mind that the agent must provide you with a copy of the contract, information on who to contact for independent advice as well as his or her name and position. If this information is not provided then you are free to cancel the contract.
If the agreement was made on the phone or online, you have 14 days to change your mind. This timeframe can be increased under the Distance Selling Regulations.
For more information you can check the Citizen Advice Bureau’s guide to changing your mind about switching.
How do I make a complaint to an energy supplier?
Energy provision is a service like any other and, if you feel you’re energy supplier is underperforming, you have every right to complain.
First, complain directly to your provider. Sometimes a simple phone call is all it takes to clear up a misunderstanding. Do make sure you keep of note of who you spoke to and what their advice was, for future reference.
If the issue is more complex and isn’t resolved through a phone call, we recommend writing to your supplier. You can do this either by email or post. Be sure to include your account information and any relevant scans or photocopies of your bills.
If you’re still having problems, get in touch with Citizens Advice Consumer Service. This organisation was created to provide advice to consumers, although they won’t be able to take action on your behalf unless you qualify as a vulnerable citizen.
Contact the Citizens Advice Bureau:
Phone: 08454 04 05 06
What if my energy supplier can’t resolve my issue?
If your supplier is unable to sort out your issue or doesn’t get back to you, it’s time to get in touch with the Ombudsman Services – Energy.
First, your supplier needs to acknowledge that the issue cannot be resolved on their side. Ask the supplier to provide you with a letter of deadlock which you can take to the ombudsman. This letter will state that they are unable to solve the problem.
You need to give your supplier eight weeks to try to solve any issue you have raised before they are required to provide you with a letter of deadlock. If, after this time, they do not issue a letter on request, you are free to contact the ombudsman.
If you need more information, have a look at our energy complaints guide.
What is energy mis-selling?
Gas and electricity suppliers are bound by certain rules when they market and sell energy contracts. These rules are either dictated by energy regulator Ofgem or part of a voluntary code of practice which most of the UK’s big six suppliers have signed up to.
Should an energy supplier pressure or mislead you into agreeing to a contract, you may have been mis-sold an energy deal. The process is not as uncommon and as you might think — and SSE was recently fined a record £10m for mis-selling contracts between 2009 and 2011.
Since then, energy companies including SSE have, for the most part, put an end to these questionable practices but it’s always good to keep an eye out.
You can find more information on what constitutes mis-selling, as well as templates for letters, at the Citizens Advice Bureau website.
I think I’ve been mis-sold an energy contract — what should I do?
If you think you have been mis-sold an energy contract, your first step should be to get in touch with the relevant energy supplier. If you have been switched to a new supplier without your consent, you can complain to either your current or previous supplier.
Should the supplier be unable to handle your complaint, follow the steps listed in the above "What if my energy supplier can’t resolve my issue?" section.