How to challenge excessive gas and electricity bills

20 September 2021, 15:39 | Updated: 20 September 2021, 22:20

Daniel Barnett

By Daniel Barnett

What happens if your energy supplier has overcharged you and is threatening to cut off your electricity or gas?

Energy supplies get their licence from the energy regulator, Ofgem, and they have to follow certain rules.  The main three, which are set out in the Standard Licence Conditions, are that:

  • Your energy supplier must ‘behave and carry out any actions in a fair, honest, transparent, appropriate and professional manner’
  • The information they give you must also be ‘complete, accurate and not misleading’
  • They should ‘act promptly and courteously to put things right when the licensee or any representative makes a mistake’.  Basically, if it’s your energy supplier’s fault that you’ve been overcharged, then they have to fix it. 

Making a complaint if you’ve been overcharged

If your supplier tests your meter and tells you it isn't faulty, but you still think you're being overcharged, you can make a formal complaint to them and tell them how you want them to fix your problem; most commonly you will want a reduced bill or a refund. Your supplier will have a complaints procedure that requires them to solve your problem within 8 weeks. It’s best to send your complaint by email or post, but you can also do it by phone. That’s not ideal because there’s more chance of it leading to confusion over what you’re complaining about.

What should my complaint look like?

Your complaint should explain what the problem is and contain relevant evidence. The most common evidence would be:

  • A collection of bills where you've been overcharged
  • Photos of your meter showing the reading
  • Any correspondence with your energy supplier telling you they're cutting you off

You should get a 'decision letter' or a 'letter of deadlock' within eight weeks, telling you how your supplier is dealing with your complaint. If you get a letter of deadlock, that means that your energy company can't (or won’t) do anything else to help you with your complaint. If you’re not happy with the decision, or you get a deadlock letter, the next step is to complain to the Energy Ombudsman.

The Energy Ombudsmen

The Energy Ombudsman is an independent adjudicator totally separate from your energy company.  The Ombudsman’s contact details will be included in the deadlock letter you receive, and I’ve put a link in the notes below.Again, you'll need to provide relevant evidence, which you should have been collecting during the process.

This should start from the date when you first noticed the issue, any copies of emails or phone calls complaining to your energy supplier, and any other evidence, for instance, how much you've been overcharged and what your supplier has tried to do about it, like testing your meter.

Sometimes, when your complaint is processed and your supplier is notified by the Ombudsman, they might just offer you a new resolution. If you accept it, great – the problem’s solved.If you carry on with the complaint and the ombudsman decides that your supplier has made a mistake or is treating you unfairly, then they'll tell your supplier to take the appropriate actions to rectify the situation.

These actions could include giving you credit back, sending you an apology, or making sure that your supplier improves its services so that the issue doesn't happen again.

What measures are in place to prevent you from being cut off?

You have a number of rights to prevent your energy being disconnected. Having your energy cut off is actually quite rare. It’s a last resort and shouldn’t happen while you’re in dispute with your supplier about overcharging. Even if your bill is correct and you can’t pay it, it's more likely that you’ll be offered a solution like fitting a prepayment meter in your home so you can’t build up debt you can’t manage.

The Problem of Back Bills

A back bill is a bill sent by your energy supplier when you haven't been correctly charged for your energy use and you’re having to pay for the extra energy you’ve used but not paid for. If you send updated readings to your supplier after receiving an ‘estimated bill’, and the readings are higher than your energy supplier had estimated, your back bill will be higher than your original estimated bill. It's also possible that your direct debit might have been accidentally cancelled, so when your energy company notices the mistake and resolves it, your bill might be much higher. You might have been charged for the wrong meter. You might not have received a bill for a long time, because of a problem with your supplier’s system. In any case, you probably won't know what's going on until you receive a much bigger bill than usual.

The main rule is that you can't be charged for gas or electricity used more than 12 months ago if you've been incorrectly billed by the supplier. That means, for example, that if you receive a bill in September 2021 for energy you used before October 2020, you normally don’t have to pay it. This 12 month limit doesn’t apply if you've done something to prevent them from charging you correctly, for example stopped the energy company from coming and taking meter readings. If it's your fault the energy company has incorrectly charged you, then they can still collect their debt from over 12 months ago.

Covid-related measures

In 2020, the government brought in measures to stop vulnerable people having their energy cut off during lockdown. If you’re on a pre-payment plan, you can speak to your supplier about options to keep you supplied. If you're one of the 4 million people to benefit from this initiative, you probably know about it already - you might have had extra credit added to your account, had another person go to top up your card, or been sent a new topped up card.

Disconnection of credit meters has been completely suspended, so there is no chance you'll be cut off during the pandemic, unless the government changes its policy.

Repayment plans

If you can't afford to pay for the energy you've used - if the bill is higher than normal for some legitimate reason - then talk to your supplier.

What must my supplier do before they cut me off?

Energy companies must not disconnect your house's electricity unless they have taken ‘all reasonable steps to get you to pay your bill.’ It's also worth noting that suppliers aren't allowed to disconnect you between 1 October and 31 March of any year if you're a pensioner, living alone or with children under 18. As part of the Safety Net scheme by Energy UK, the six main energy suppliers in the UK have also agreed that you can't be disconnected at any time of year ‘for reasons of age, health, disability or severe financial insecurity.’

If you can't come to an agreement to settle your debt, they can apply to court for a warrant to enter your home and force you to have a prepayment meter, or even cut off your supply. The supplier has to send you a notice telling you they're applying to court. You should do everything you can to come to an agreement with your supplier before the court date. If you don't contact them, you should attend the court hearing, when, again, you can try to come to an agreement. If the court gives the supplier a warrant, your supplier should send you a notice in writing 7 days before coming to your home to cut you off. If your meter is outside of your property, they don't need a warrant, but most suppliers will get a warrant anyway. Under Schedule 6 of the Electricity Act 1989, your supplier is allowed to disconnect your electricity if you haven’t made the relevant payments, but not if the bill is genuinely being disputed, and not unless they’ve given you 7 working days’ notice.

If you have a smart meter, you could be disconnected remotely, but first, your supplier must have contacted you to discuss options for settling your debt, and they must have visited your home to assess whether being disconnected is an option for you. It might not be, for instance, if you have a disability.