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Citizens Advice - Energy autoswitcher customers not always getting the best deals

Some energy autoswitching services are comparing fewer than 15 out of around 70 possible energy suppliers, despite claiming to cover most of the market. The result is some customers are paying £70 a year more than if they’d found a good deal and switched themselves. This is according to a new report - Stuck in the Middle - from Citizens Advice.

Some autoswitchers were also providing inaccurate or unclear information, making it difficult for consumers to make informed choices about using the service. Some were even listing energy firms who have gone out of business. 

Despite poor levels of market coverage and unclear information from some autoswitchers, the charity’s research showed customers of others getting good deals and only paying £5 more than if they’d found the deal themselves. 

The first autoswitching service launched in 2016, last year around 300,000 people used these services.

The charity believes the problems uncovered with autoswitchers highlight a wider problem that Third Party Intermediaries (TPI) in the energy market - services like autoswitchers, price comparison websites and other services - are not currently regulated.

The charity is calling on the government to use the upcoming energy white paper to make sure consumer protections are fit for the future and bring them into line with other markets like insurance. A move which has overwhelming public support.

This will be essential as new types of TPIs emerge that will manage smart appliances and electric vehicle charging and have far greater control over aspects of people’s lives. These services will be increasingly important to the UK’s transition to net zero by helping people manage their energy use and helping balance supply and demand to and from the electricity grid.

Lack of regulation leaves people facing serious problems

The current lack of regulation of these energy services means people can face serious problems that are difficult to resolve. Cases seen by Citizens Advice of problems caused by TPIs include:

  • Autoswitchers failing to cancel a switch, leaving customers stuck with a supplier they are unhappy with or facing exit fees
  • Bill splitting companies failing to pass on communications from suppliers, leaving people in unexpected debt
  • Consumers in vulnerable situations losing some of the services they rely on as a result of being switched without warning

Existing protection gaps

If people buy insurance through a price comparison website and things go wrong, there are far greater levels of protection than with energy.

TPIs operating in insurance and other financial services sectors are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). This means people can resolve complaints via an ombudsman, firms are required to treat their customers fairly and vulnerable customers have more protections.

Citizens Advice is calling for the same approach in energy, overseen by Ofgem. The charity believes the approach would ensure a good balance between consumer protections and ongoing innovation.

Overwhelming support for reform

The charity’s research, a combination of workshops with energy customers and national polling, found people are shocked by the lack of regulation and overwhelmingly support reform.

  • Nearly 4 in 5 people (79%) say price comparison websites and autoswitchers should have to offer customers a route to an ombudsman to resolve complaints
  • A significant majority of people think price comparison websites (73%) and energy autoswitchers (70%) should be regulated
  • 60% of people think TPIs should follow rules to make them give clear information on how many suppliers they compare and how they’re funded 

Time for regulation

The charity believes reform is well overdue - the Competition and Markets Authority first called for these reforms in 2017 - and urgently needed. 

Last year 6.9 million people used a third-party service to compare or switch their energy supplier. The market is set to grow further as the country moves towards net zero. 

Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“The lack of regulation leaves people facing potentially serious problems and a lengthy and difficult path to resolving them. As more and more people use these sorts of services it’s essential that better safeguards for customers are put in place now.

“The government has an opportunity in the upcoming energy white paper to fix current problems and make sure the right consumer protections are in place as the UK moves to a zero-carbon future.”

Notes to editors

  1. Autoswitching market coverage and saving figures based on information provided by autoswitching services to Requests for Information issued by Citizens Advice under Section 24 of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act. Citizens Advice issued a request asking identified autoswitchers operating in the GB energy market 1. the current number of people subscribed to their service and 2. a list of all energy suppliers and tariffs that the company was comparing to switch consumers on a given day in February 2020. The savings figure is based on a calculation of the difference between the cheapest tariff that companies were offering on a given day, compared to the cheapest tariff available on that same day. Savings were calculated based on medium energy use under Ofgem’s Typical Domestic Consumption Values on a dual fuel tariff, and included charges by autoswitchers where applicable.
  2. Support for regulation figures based on a nationally representative survey of 1,793 GB bill-payers, conducted online by Opinium. Fieldwork was carried out between 14-18 February 2020.
  3. 6.9 million figure for people comparing or switching their energy supplier based on data from Ofgem consumer survey 2019.
  4. Citizens Advice includes the national charity; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.
  5. Citizens Advice is the statutory consumer advocate for energy and post. We provide supplier performance information to consumers and policy analysis to decision makers.
  6. The Citizens Advice Witness Service provides free, independent support for prosecution and defence witnesses in every criminal court in England and Wales.
  7. Citizens Advice offers Pension Wise services at 500 locations in England and Wales.
  8. Citizens Advice’s services are free, independent, confidential and impartial, and available to all regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  9. To get advice online or find your local Citizens Advice, visit citizensadvice.org.uk
  10. For consumer advice, call the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 to talk in Welsh.
  11. We helped 2.6 million people face to face, by phone, email and webchat in 2017-18. For service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.
  12. Citizens Advice staff are supported by over 23,000 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 locations in England and Wales.
Original article link: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/about-us/how-citizens-advice-works/media/press-releases/energy-autoswitcher-customers-not-always-getting-the-best-deals/

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