Today (Wednesday 13 July 2022), energy regulator Ofgem has told a number of energy suppliers to take immediate and urgent action, after a review found a range of weaknesses or failings in the way they charge customers direct debits.
Out of a total of 17 large suppliers in the market, the majority were found to only have minor issues, but five were found to have ‘moderate or severe’ weaknesses with Ofgem demanding immediate action.
This is an initial snapshot of findings and suppliers affected will now have to submit action plans within two weeks to set out how they will take the required actions, which Ofgem will scrutinise for effectiveness and comprehensiveness.
Although we have not found evidence of unjustifiably high direct debits, as an additional reassurance for consumers, the regulator will require all suppliers that increased their customers’ direct debits by more than 100% (impacting over 500,000 customers) to review them.
Where appropriate, Ofgem also expects suppliers to adjust any miscalculations, including making repayments if needed, and consider whether a goodwill payment is warranted.
The review of domestic energy suppliers found that:
- Over 7 million energy consumers on a Standard Variable Tariff (SVT) saw an increase in their direct debit between February and April 2022
- On average, direct debit levels for customers on an SVT increased by 62% in this period. Most of this reflects the increased cost of gas*
- 8% of SVT customers seeing an increase (around 500,000 households) experienced an increase of more than 100% and Ofgem is concerned by this and wants to ensure there is good reason for it (e.g., coming off an SVT, increase in energy use etc)
- Evidence that some suppliers’ processes are not as robust as they could be, and that this could lead to inconsistent, incorrect or poor treatment for customers
- A lack of formally documented policies and processes within some suppliers, which risks inconsistent and poor consumer outcomes.
Ofgem recognises that increases experienced by consumers will differ depending on a range of factors, and that some of these, such as recent tariff changes, high debit balances or recent meter reads, can drive large adjustments to customer direct debits. But it is for suppliers to ensure that direct debits are set correctly based on all relevant information available, and that they clearly communicate any changes in a way that helps consumers understand their payments.
Jonathan Brearley, Ofgem CEO, said:
“We know how hard it is for energy customers at the moment so it’s crucial that the amount they pay each month in direct debits is right so they can manage their money.
“Suppliers must do all they can, especially during the current gas crisis, to support customers and to recognise the significant worry and concern increased direct debits can cause.
“We know there is some excellent service out there, but we want to make sure that it’s consistent and standard across the board. It’s clear from today’s findings on direct debits that there are areas of the market where customers are simply not getting the service they need and rightly expect in these very difficult times.
“Today’s findings show that with the urgent changes we are now expecting, the current system will be much fairer for consumers. Bringing down the price of gas is not in Ofgem’s control; however, we will do all we can to have a fair system and ensure suppliers look after their customers.”
The Ofgem assessment divided supplier findings into three groups:
- No significant issues (four suppliers)
- Minor weaknesses (seven suppliers)
- Moderate to severe weaknesses (five suppliers)
Suppliers in the first group, with no significant issues found, are British Gas, EDF, ScottishPower and SO Energy. Our review found that these suppliers generally had robust processes in place, although we did make some recommendations for improvement, and Ofgem will work with these suppliers for continuous improvement. We are asking these suppliers to review customer direct debits to ensure they are correct, as an additional assurance for consumers.
The second group, with minor weaknesses, consisted of Bulb, E.ON, Octopus Energy, Outfox the Market, Ovo, Shell and Utility Warehouse. For this group of suppliers, we identified some weaknesses or gaps in their processes that could lead to poor consumer outcomes. Examples include lack of documented policies or guidance for staff, potentially not taking account of all relevant factors when setting customer direct debits, or risks that some customers’ direct debits are not assessed when appropriate. We have started compliance engagement with these suppliers to secure improvements.
Suppliers in the third group had moderate to severe weaknesses identified. This group includes Ecotricity, Good Energy, Green Energy UK and Utilita Energy, and covered a spectrum of weaknesses, ranging from inadequately documented or embedded processes, weak governance and controls, to an overall lack of a structured approach to setting customer direct debits. Ofgem is concerned that in some cases this could lead to customer direct debits being set incorrectly, or not being evaluated for a long time, which can cause the build-up of either unnecessarily large credit balances or debt, depending on whether the customer is under- or overpaying. Ofgem is starting compliance engagement with these suppliers to drive rapid and robust improvements to processes and reassess customer direct debits where necessary. If these suppliers don’t take action fast enough, Ofgem will consider enforcement action.
Also in this group, with severe weaknesses were TruEnergy and UK Energy Incubator Hub (UKEIH). In both cases we found suppliers did not have a consistent and structured approach to setting customer direct debits, and found severe concerns over the maturity of their processes, putting consumers at a serious risk of inconsistent or poor outcomes, with need for rapid and significant improvement. To this end, we are considering whether enforcement action is warranted. Since the findings were made, UKEIH have ceased to trade and so we will not pursue any further action against them.
If Ofgem does not see swift and sufficient improvement, as well as redress for consumers where necessary, the regulator will not hesitate to initiate enforcement action against more suppliers, which can include fines, enforcement orders and banning the acquisition of new customers.
Ofgem has now instructed suppliers to:
- review the accounts of all customers whose direct debit was increased by 100% or more between 1 February and 30 April 2022, to assess whether the uplift was appropriate
- adjust any miscalculations and consider whether a goodwill payment is warranted in the circumstances
- address any process issues which may have incorrectly led to significant increases or other poor consumer outcomes, such as systemic over- or underpayment, and
- submit action plans within two weeks to set out how they will take the required actions, which Ofgem will scrutinise for effectiveness and comprehensiveness.
Journalistic website Money Saving Expert (MSE) sent Ofgem a dossier of information earlier this year on the same issue, after it was raised by consumers.
This is all part of the wider work that Ofgem is doing to make the energy market fairer, including a robust recent review into lessons learnt from Storm Arwen, a more frequent and fairer price cap, and most recently, action to improve the financial resilience of companies. As well as reviewing supplier performance, Ofgem also recently reviewed its own performance, through a wide-ranging report led by independent auditor Oxera.
NOTES TO EDITORS:
- *The price cap itself increased on 1 April 2022. The increase for the ‘medium energy user’ based on our typical domestic consumption values would be 54%, but actual increases for consumers will be lower or higher than that based on a variety of factors including their consumption, credit/debit balance, any recent tariff switches and factors. Ofgem has started compliance engagement with these suppliers to secure improvements or obtain more assurances. This is a first step, and does not mean we have found these suppliers non-compliant or that we have found evidence of consumer detriment. However, we are sufficiently concerned to look into these suppliers further.
- Ofgem has started compliance engagement with the suppliers listed at the end of this note in relation to Standard Licence Conditions (SLC) 0.3, 4A.1 and 27.13-16. We are also in the process of starting Enforcement action in relation to one of these suppliers. We expect that there could be further enforcement referrals depending on further information we receive from suppliers.
- Last month, Ofgem issued this update: Ofgem announces tough new financial measures to ensure energy suppliers can withstand future shocks - including protection for customers’ credit balances | Ofgem
- In order to give accurate meter readings, smart meters are replacing traditional gas and electricity meters across Great Britain as part of an essential national infrastructure upgrade to transition to a more flexible and efficient energy system.
- Following the review, Ofgem expects suppliers to adjust any miscalculations and consider whether a goodwill payment is warranted in the circumstance. We also expect suppliers to address any process issues which may have incorrectly led to the significant increase.
- We are requiring these suppliers to provide us with more information and plans to show how they will improve their standards. It is essential that suppliers’ processes and policies are robust and deliver consistent and good consumer outcomes.
- We expect suppliers to take appropriate steps to ensure they are setting consumer direct debits at the correct level. This includes improving and formally documenting all elements of governance, policies, processes and controls the support positive and consistent consumer outcomes
- We also expect all suppliers to learn lessons from our market compliance review and proactively plan for the next price cap period which is due to come into effect on 1 October 2022, to ensure that any future changes to customer direct debits are appropriate and communicated clearly.
- Ofgem also recognises that increases experienced by consumers will differ depending on a range of factors, and that some of these, such as recent tariff changes, high debit balances or recent meter reads, can drive large adjustments to customer direct debits. Nonetheless, it is for suppliers to ensure that direct debits are set correctly based on all relevant information available, and that they communicate any changes in a way that helps consumers understand their payments for energy.