Energy firms hold on to aid for customers

Energy firms hold on to aid for customers: Nearly £300m of taxpayer cash to ease cost-of-living crisis is sitting in coffers

  • Government’s Energy Bills Support Scheme was in place from October to March 
  • Millions of households were given £400 off their gas and electricity bills 
  • Hundreds of thousands of households had not received support by early March

Britain’s biggest energy firms are sitting on a hoard of £280 million in taxpayer cash that should have been passed on to customers through vital grants, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.

British Gas, Scottish Power and Eon are among the firms to have held the largest sums earmarked for the Government’s Energy Bills Support Scheme. These companies have retained an estimated £155 million between them.

The scheme to help with the cost-of-living crisis was in place from October to March. Millions of households were given £400 off their gas and electricity bills through monthly instalments to ease the burden of sky-high energy costs.

But shocking Government figures, analysed by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, show that hundreds of thousands of households had still not received financial support by early March, when the figures were compiled. This includes huge numbers on traditional prepayment meters, who are often the most vulnerable – struggling at the lowest end of the income scale.

It is understood that many prepayment vouchers may have been delivered to customers but have still not been redeemed. But others have not received them at all.

Struggle: Government figures, analysed by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, show that hundreds of thousands of households had still not received financial support by early March

Government data spanning October to February shows that some suppliers have performed better than others when distributing cash from the support scheme.

Industry sources said certain companies had undertaken drives to remind customers who had received but not redeemed their prepayment vouchers to do so.

Official figures show that Octopus Energy has shelled out almost 90 per cent of its support vouchers and now holds just over £1 million worth of cash from the energy help scheme.

By contrast, Scottish Power has yet to hand over £45.4 million worth of support.

Energy suppliers have said the Government numbers are out of date as new figures are due this month. Some have also stressed that the majority of support vouchers have been delivered to customers but have not been redeemed.

Customers affected include not only households with prepayment meters but also those on direct debit or so-called ‘standard credit’ customers who pay for their energy by cash or cheque.

Simon Francis, coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said the research paints a ‘shocking picture’.

He added: ‘In some cases, energy firms have been far too slow to pass on these vital funds to customers who may have spent the winter living in cold, damp homes. While many millions of households have had their payments issued with no problem, the figures around pre-payment meter voucher redemption are particularly worrying. Energy firms need to up their game significantly to end this breakdown in customer service.’

There are many reasons why support may not have been fed through to customers, particularly as different suppliers used varying methods to pay the £400. Some discounted it straight from customer bills, while others credited cash into people’s bank accounts.

In theory, this meant payments could bounce back or lead to ‘technical gremlins’ interfering. But, regardless of the method, campaigners are calling for urgent action.

Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said: ‘It is very concerning that we are still seeing Energy Bill Support Scheme vouchers not being redeemed and that millions of pounds in Government support is going unclaimed.’

‘It’s essential that in the scheme’s final months, the Government, energy suppliers and top-up outlets pull out all the stops to raise awareness of the scheme, and do everything possible to reach customers who are still struggling to redeem their vouchers or are unaware of the scheme.’

It is understood that energy firms will have to hand back any outstanding cash to the Government, including interest gained. This raises the question as to what Ministers will do with the windfall, should it arrive this summer.

All major energy firms were contacted for comment.

Eon urged customers to redeem any vouchers valid until the end of June 2023, adding that it has managed more than 24 million payments in the past six months.

A spokesman added: ‘As a proportion of customer accounts, we are well within industry performance levels when it comes to providing this support in a timely way and continuing to deliver this help to customers in an efficient way.’

Scottish Power said: ‘Our priority is for our customers to get the support they are due. But many factors can result in a voucher not being redeemed, such as email addresses being out of date or customers not engaging with their energy company.’

British Gas said: ‘Our teams have worked hard to deliver this Government scheme to millions of customers.

‘All payments have been issued. If for any reason a customer hasn’t received one of these payments, our advice is to get in touch with us and we’ll resolve it as quickly as possible.’