Your legal rights as an energy consumer
As a consumer you have certain legal rights.
These are laws that are designed to protect you and ensure you are treated fairly and reasonably as a customer, whether you are buying a product or a service.
Being a customer of an energy company is no different – these rights are just as relevant to you as if you were buying a pair of shoes on the High Street.
In the energy market, just six giant companies provide energy for over 90% of customers, so it’s especially important to ensure they can’t just do whatever they like.
Most of us, though, it seems have only a fairly loose grasp of what our rights are.
One of the most fundamental rights is that to switch energy provider – indeed, the government actively encourages consumers to switch to the best deal for their needs.
This is the best way of keeping the energy market dynamic and competitive (try our comparison tool to make sure you're not being overcharged).
Ofgem is vital in the process of defending the consumer.
It is the energy market’s official watchdog and seeks to protect consumers from excessive energy bills and is there to make sure billing mistakes are rectified.
It enforces the rules the energy providers are required to observe.
If a supplier breaks rules, Ofgem is required to intervene and take action; but it also acts as an arbitrator for customers who feel they have been treated badly and want to complain.
It’s role is vital as surveys have shown that more than 70% of consumers have been overcharged for one utility or another in the previous 12 months.
Understanding your energy bill can be hard, but energy companies are required to make them as accessible as possible.
Here are a few commonly asked questions about what energy companies can and can’t do.
Can a utility company just increase its prices?
These companies operate according to market forces, like any other.
If prices move, they will need to pass on these to the consumer, down to stay competitive and up to keep making a profit.
So, yes, they can put their prices up BUT you do have rights.
They have to give you at least 30-days warning they are going to do so and you have the right to switch supplier if you want without penalty.
This is the simplest and best response to a price rise – hit our comparison tool and shop around for a better deal.
Prices are in a constant state of flux, so there will almost always be new options for the energy consumer.
The rules are that you have 20 days from when you were informed of a price change to let your supplier know you want to switch.
If you miss this deadline and tell them later, they are entitled to send you your next bill reflecting the new rate.
Or, opt for a fixed plan
Of course, if you have signed up to a fixed tariff, then you are protected from price rises for the length of the contract.
What about direct debits?
Direct debits involve the company having the ability to basically dip into your bank account and take out what you owe.
Once set up, you don’t control the amount they can take.
If you pay by direct debit and you pay a fixed amount, the company will work out what your total should be by forecasting your usage based on previous consumption.
It will calculate an amount that, spread over 12 payments, will meet your annual bill.
But, obviously, your consumption can change and the amount you pay needs to be reviewed.
Companies are required to review the amount you pay at least once a year and most will examine the numbers twice yearly.
If you’re paying too much, they can and must lower the amount you pay.
If your monthly payment won’t cover your yearly energy use, they will increase your direct debit.
But, again, you have rights.
They must tell you before changing the amount and they must do that at least 10 days before the new amount comes into effect. If they fail to inform you, you can challenge the new amount and seek compensation as the company has broken the rules.
You can also challenge the new figure if you think it is too high. If you do this, however, make sure you are armed with meter readings and previous bills and can show evidence as to why the new amount is too high.
Or, once again, consider a fixed plan or switching.
If you're struggling to pay your energy bills, your supplier is obliged to help (see below)
What if I have money troubles?
It can happen to anyone – you lose your job or suffer some financial hit that leaves you struggling.
What can you do?
The first thing to do is to open a dialogue with the energy company. They are used to dealing with people in this position and are required to have policies in place to help.
That doesn’t, however, mean you won’t have to pay what you owe.
All suppliers must give you advice and help you work out a repayment plan that you can manage. It’s important not to agree to anything you can’t really afford.
If things go wrong and you agree to a plan and you fall behind again, the supplier may decide to in effect stop extending credit and install a prepayment meter.
This means you will have to pay in advance for most of the energy you use, although you will probably be able to go over a little, the surplus being taken from your next prepayment.
People on benefits might be able to get help from the Fuel Direct scheme.
This allows fuel charges to be paid direct from your benefits.
Those on the following benefits may qualify: income-based Jobseeker's Allowance,
Income Support, income-related Employment and Support Allowance and Pension Credit.
Can I be disconnected?
In short, yes.
But it’s really a last resort and is not common.
If I switch supplier, can I change my mind?
Like everything you buy online, when you switch energy supplier, there is a cooling off period during which time you can cancel the change.
If you agreed to switch in your home or in a public place, such as a stall in a shopping centre, you have 14 days to cancel without any reason needed.
If you agree to switch on the phone or online, again, you have 14 days to change your mind.
Once the switch has been initiated by the new supplier and they have made a request to bring over your account, they will be unable to stop it.
But you can contact your old supplier and they can halt the switch until a set time on the day before it’s due to happen.
What if I have a complaint about a supplier – what are my rights?
You have the right to complain and for your complaint to be considered – you can’t just be brushed aside.
But there is a set procedure that should be followed.
The first step is to complain to the company which will have its own complaint-handling process.
Often, this is all it takes to reach a swift resolution.
If you need to contact a company with a complaint, it’s important to keep a record of who you spoke to and when as well as what was said.
If you get no joy, consider raising the matter on A Spokesman Said – often a quick complaint through our website will nudge the supplier into action and at the very least we'll make your voice heard/
Otherwise, the next step is to escalate the complaint by putting it in writing – email is simplest, but by snail mail is also fine.
Provide all the evidence you can to support your case and also a summary of previous attempts to resolve matters on the phone.
Ultimately, if you can’t get a resolution or you believe your supplier has not dealt with your complaint reasonably, you can contact the energy watchdog, Ofgem
What about Ofgem?
Before you appeal to Ofgem to sort things out, you need to make it clear you are not happy wth how matters have been handled and that you are not happy with the conclusion the company has reached.
This is known as reaching deadlock.
You need to establish that the company has reached the end of the road on their side in dealing with the matter and deadlock has been reached.
You’ll need a letter from them saying deadlock has been reached.
You are required to give them eight weeks to issue this letter; if after this time they haven’t issued one, you can go ahead and contact the ombudsman anyway.