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Switched off

The proposal from Chris Huhne that energy companies tell customers where they can get a better deal is on the right tack

Only 25% of consumers shop around for cheaper energy. This could be because many people are lazy or because energy suppliers make their tariffs fiendishly complicated in order to spread ignorance and confusion.

Well, there’s no point grumbling about human nature, as energy secretary Chris Huhne, after appearing to blame customers in an interview last week, has now worked out. Instead, he produced a proposal that, if executed firmly, has a chance of improving matters: make energy companies tell their customers whether they could get a better deal on a different tariff.

In itself, it’s not a recipe to encourage more switching between suppliers. But the policy could tackle the phenomenon, widely suspected, of companies nudging up prices for the apathetic/intimidated 75% while preserving the appearance of competition by fighting hard for the custom of the engaged 25%. Call it a sensible anti-sneak measure.

It’s not a cure-all. Energy companies’ powers of obfuscation should not be under-estimated; customers will still have to summon the will to go online, where most of the best deals are found; and customers on pre-pay meters probably know already that a direct debit arrangement would be cheaper if only they could get one.

But the thrust of the policy is right. It’s four years since Scottish & Southern Energy succeeded in persuading 1 million customers to leave British Gas, and little drama has been seen in the retail energy market since then. Even this modest kick is better than nothing. The fact that some energy companies seem to regard a Competition Commission inquiry as preferable suggests Huhne is on the right tack. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds