ENERGY companies are coming under renewed flak for treating customers in a callous and disrespectful way amid a growing number of complaints from people receiving letters informing them that their bills are doubling or trebling without prior warning.
One Lerwick mother of four resorted to turning her heating off completely in the teeth of a very cold week of January weather after a letter containing the bombshell that her monthly payment was going up from £245 to an eye-watering £746 – higher than the cost of rent for many folk.
Only after BBC Radio Shetland intervened did OVO Energy, which owns the energy services part of the SSE Group, respond by promising to install a smart meter and offering advice on other ways to bring her energy costs down.
It has also promised to pause her direct debit until the issue is resolved.
The woman said an SSE/OVO complaints team got in touch and were “really polite and apologetic”.
After they promised not to take any further payments until her account has been corrected, she felt able to turn her heaters back on.
But she had been left shaking with fear and anger when the letter first came in and was “scared” at the prospect of racking up energy debts.
“I’m not the only one,” she told Shetland News. “So many have had similar letters since before Christmas. It’s terrible!”
Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said in a House of Commons debate this week that energy firms needed to show “greater care and respect for customers”.
The Liberal Democrat politician said it was clear that “we cannot rely on companies to do the right thing unprompted” and urged “anyone who has been hit by unreasonable price hikes to contact our offices so that we can put suppliers on the spot”.
He pointed out that SSE had placed many people on tariffs like “total heating, total control” and was now using them to “keep their customers prisoner because it is impossible for them to switch”.
Carmichael said many customers in the Highlands and Islands had been loyal for generations and deserved to be treated “rather better than that”.
“Reports of astronomical energy price hikes are extremely concerning but all-too familiar,” he said. “It appears that energy companies care less about imposing these hikes on hard-pressed families than they do about being caught.
“There is a great deal more that governments and suppliers could and should be doing to help families get through this crunch period. In the meantime, however, we have to do all we can to help one another.”
OVO said those on fixed rate tariffs faced price rises at the end of their contracts and claimed they were “helping our members plan for the future by making a small and manageable increase now to reduce the chance of a bigger direct debit later on”.
An OVO spokeswoman said that in the case of the Lerwick woman whose bill had been set to treble, the amount was based on “actual usage rather than estimated meter readings”.
It claimed her letter was based on a “quarterly, rather than monthly statement” despite the letter explicitly stating “Your new monthly payment is £746.00. Your old payment was £245.00.”
OVO said it was arranging to install a smart meter and was providing support via its OVO Energy Fund.
The spokeswoman said the rocketing cost of wholesale energy was affecting prices and the company expects energy regulator Ofgem to increase the price cap.
Shetland News asked OVO’s press team several times if it wished to apologise for the distress it had caused the woman and many other customers by sending out letters of this nature, but each time the spokeswoman chose not to address the question.
Analysts have been warning for months of a looming cost-of-living crisis amid a perfect storm created by a combination global oil and gas price rises, the UK’s energy price cap set to rise from April, inflation outstripping wage increases, large increases in the cost of many foodstuffs, and the removal of the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit last October.
The issue cropped up at the SIC’s environment and transport committee on Tuesday as members discussed a report on how the local authority will make a “just transition” to a “net zero” carbon future.
While he was “very comfortable” with the longer term ambitions set out in the report, committee vice chairman Robbie McGregor said he had “real concerns” that in the short term families are about to “hit a brick wall” when their next energy bills come in.
The SNP councillor said he hoped consideration would be given to pressing the UK Government to act before households face shelling out hundreds of pounds more on heating their homes.
Among the possible solutions, he suggested, were addressing transmission charges, VAT, green levies and cold weather payments.
“I feel extremely sorry for the people that are going to be in this position over the next few months and I feel we need to wade in and help them, if at all possible,” McGregor said.
* If you are struggling to keep up with rising energy bills or other living costs you can contact Shetland’s Citizens Advice Bureau by phoning (01595) 694696, or by attending in person at 14 Market Street, Lerwick.
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