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Energy / ‘Staggering’ and ‘outrageous’ behaviour from suppliers

Local Lib Dem politicians Beatrice Wishart MSP and Alistair Carmichael MP. Photos: Shetland News

SHETLAND’S Liberal Democrat parliamentary representatives have written to energy regulator Ofgem highlighting the effects of steep price rises and numerous complaints from constituents of poor customer service from suppliers.

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael and Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart are seeking an urgent meeting with Ofgem amid mounting frustration from islanders.

In addition to frustration at increases in energy prices, constituents are also reporting frequent difficulties getting in touch with providers to address billing issues.

Carmichael and Wishart are asking the regulator to tackle “energy increases over and above the rate of inflation, staggering billing issues and appalling levels of misinformation” and warn the rises “have very real consequences for our constituents”.

The parliamentarians’ letter highlights examples including an elderly couple being billed £845 for April-July this summer compared to only £387 for the same period in 2018 – despite only using a single radiator in their home for heating.

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One constituent’s meter readings were mis-entered into a supplier billing system resulting in a huge erroneous bill for nearly £4,000.

Another received a letter advising that their direct debit was to increase fivefold with just a fortnight’s notice – with the company later admitting the letter had been sent out automatically despite there being a vulnerability marker on the constituent’s account.

In their letter, Carmichael and Wishart state: “We have received reports of people switching off their hot water heaters completely, turning down their storage heaters, making do with one storage heater to heat an entire house, and relying on hot water bottles and blankets.”

Carmichael said being overcharged for electricity and heating was “all too familiar” for islanders but “even by those standards” some of the issues being raised were “outrageous”.

“It is small wonder we are still facing down the scourge of fuel poverty when energy providers are acting in this manner,” he said.

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“We will be putting the case to Ofgem that island communities cannot be treated in the same way as any other part of the UK. Geographical challenges and lack of competition make it harder for islanders to get a fair deal – and that is where the regulator must play its part.”

Wishart described some of the stories as “appalling”, saying billing errors and misinformation were “unacceptable and causing real worry, especially for vulnerable customers”.

Recent studies have suggested the level of fuel poverty – which is defined as spending 10 per cent or more of household income on fuel – is over 40 per cent in Shetland, significantly higher than the national average.

The letter to Ofgem draws attention to SSE raising its “heating control rate” from 12.99p/unit to 16.06p/unit in the second quarter of 2020. That equates to a £600 increase in one customer’s bill. In May 2019 the unit price was 11.69p, translating into a near-40 per cent increase within a year.

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Another SSE customer said their heating units had nearly doubled from 8.54p to 15.62p since March 2015, while one constituent reported a 52 per cent rise in energy costs in two years and said they could not get another company to provide a quote due to their tariff.

One constituent contacted her supplier to enquire about cheaper tariffs and was advised they would have to employ a local electrician to install a new meter, which was completely false. The constituent then discovered she could switch supplier without changing her meter.

Shetland News has contacted Ofgem for a response.

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