Inaccurate Energy Bills

Here is a good video newsclip about inaccurate energy bills and a surge in complaints that was broadcast by the BBC a few days ago.

The thing that interests me is that UK energy bills do not get independently audited like UK phone bills. Which seems strange – is it somehow less important that customers are protected from inaccurate energy bills? No. Possibly the issue of estimation obscures things, but probably the reason why energy bills do not get audited is because the energy regulator cannot justify it, no matter how many complaints are received.

Is there something inherently more trustworthy about the energy business? You judge from the following:

1) The UK energy regulator has copied the approach of the telecoms regulator in insisting on an “alternative dispute resolution service” be provided to customers – an ombudsman. To make life easy for everyone, ex-Data Protection civil servant Elizabeth France now doubles up as an ombudsman (or should that be ombudswoman?) for both telecoms and energy, thus proving herself to be the queen bee at semi-public jobs to do with data integrity. So no difference there then. The energy ombudsman is too new to have published statistics but doubtless they will find the majority of complaints they handle relate to people complaining about being charged too much, and that the majority of customer complaints will not be upheld – although Elizabeth France was savvy enough to hide that fact in the “transparent” annual report of the telecoms ombudsman.

2) This year the UK energy industry has written a nice glossy code of practice for billing. It reads well, is simple and customer-friendly, is short on detail, has no targets and says nothing about making sure it is followed. So no audits, then. In contrast, the UK telecoms regulator has for over 20 years written the standard for UK telco billing , sometimes pretending to listen to industry whilst doing so. It is impenetrable, full of unnecessary semi-technical jargon, cannot be properly understood by anyone not also familiar with all the supplementary “interpretation”, at times contradicts the legislation and regulation that gave birth to it, includes targets and is backed by independent audits. And judging from the 20 or so private citizens who responded to Ofcom’s last public consultation on it, much loved by customers with time to write letters about such things.

So perhaps the energy industry is more trustworthy, or perhaps the telecoms regulator thinks the energy regulator is weak but trying to catch up after falling over 20 years behind. But we do know one thing: now that the industries have an ombudsman in common, and hence an independent and comparable source of data on trends in complaints, we will have an insight into which model for regulation – unaudited self-regulation without targets, or audits against an imposed standard with targets – actually works better at giving customers bills they are happy with. Roll on the first annual report of the Energy Ombudswoman!

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.