Fines urged for blackout delays

Image shows a young boy and girl sitting at the table eating breakfast. The room is lit by candles because there has been a powe

%VIRTUAL-SkimlinksPromo%Fines for power firms which fail to restore household electricity supplies within set times are needed to end the "complacency" bosses showed during mass black-outs over Christmas, MPs said.

Customers should also get far higher compensation payments after suffering much shorter periods without power during extreme weather, they said.The calls to exert pressure on the sector came in a letter to Energy Secretary Ed Davey from the chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, Tim Yeo.

Power bosses were given a bruising interrogation when they were summoned before the committee to explain their response to storms that left thousands of homes without power over the festive period.

"We invite you to consider whether a direct financial penalty should be imposed by Ofgem on companies which fail to restore power to customers within a stated time frame," Mr Yeo wrote.

"The complacency displayed by the witnesses who appeared before us convinces us that only a measure of this kind is likely to spur them into action."

They had shown an "astonishing lack of concern for the plight of their customers", he said - though he stressed that there was no criticism of staff on the ground who worked through the holidays.

More than 150,000 homes were cut off after strong winds, torrential rain and flooding caused damage to power networks, with some left without electricity for up to six days.

In future, customers should be eligible for compensation during extreme weather after 18 or 36 hours, depending on the severity, rather than the present 24 or 48, the committee believes.

And the "grossly inadequate" minimum statutory compensation of £27 should be significantly raised, he said, beyond the doubling of that already introduced by many firms.

Ofgem had proposed a £35 payment for domestic and non-domestic customers, with an additional £35 for each further 12 hours up to a cap of £300, Mr Yeo noted.

But the committee believes a rate of £75 plus £70 for each further 12 hours up to a cap of £600 - as put forward by Western Power Distribution - was a more appropriate level.

Mr Yeo also urged the Energy Secretary to push firms to introduce a 999-style emergency number for such situations by the end of the year.

The Tory MP - who is leaving the Commons in 2015 after he lost a re-selection vote of local party members - has previously said Mr Davey had been made to "look ridiculous" on the issue.

David Smith, chief executive of the Energy Networks Association, told the committee hearing that the plan faced technical issues and was "in its early stages".

"We would be interested to have clarification from you about whether you had any time frame in mind when you announced - as widely reported by the media - that a 999-style number will be set up, or
whether you are content to leave the industry to proceed at its own pace", Mr Yeo wrote.

There remained a "degree of confusion about who to contact" and there was a need for "more effective ways to communicate with and support the most vulnerable customers".

The letter noted a wide gulf between the performances of firms over the period.

Western Power Distribution had only 13 customers off supply for more than 24 hours while UK Power Networks had 20,000 - and took six days to get the last back on, it said.

"Six days is quite simply an unacceptable length of time to restore the essential service of electricity," Mr Yeo wrote.

"We accept that some of the differences in performance may be attributable to the severity of the weather in different regions.

"However, we are very concerned that the representatives from the network operators that appeared before us in January generally showed an astonishing lack of concern for the plight of their customers."

During the committee hearing, MPs were told that "tried and tested" emergency plans were defeated by the severity of the storms, including stronger-than-expected winds, and companies were unable to help each other because they were all stretched to the limits.

A Department of Energy and Climate Change spokeswoman said: "The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey has met several times with Distribution Network Operators to ensure lessons are learned and there is no repeat of what happened over Christmas.

"The Distribution Network Operators will report to Ed Davey in March to explain how customer communications will be improved and the process of claiming compensation will be made simpler.

"Ed Davey met the Distribution Network Operators again last week to ask for an update on the telephone number and we expect them to set out a timetable shortly."

10 consumer rights you should know
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Fines urged for blackout delays

The law states that any goods you buy from a UK retailer should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable amount of time.

This applies even if you buy items in a sale or with a discount voucher. You may have to insist on these rights being respected, though.

Useful phrases to use when you want to show you mean business include, "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979" and, if it's a service, "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".

Some shops will allow you to exchange goods without a receipt, but they can refuse to should they wish.

If the goods are faulty, however, another proof of purchase such as a bank statement should work just as well.

If you attempt to return goods within four weeks of the purchase, your chances of getting a full refund are much higher as you can argue that you have not "accepted" them.

After this point, you can only really expect an exchange, repair or part-refund.

The updated Consumer Credit Act states that card companies are jointly and severally liable for credit card purchases of between £100 and £60,260 (whether or not you paid just a deposit or the whole amount on your card).

Anyone spending between these amounts on their credit card is therefore protected if the retailer or service provider goes bust, their online shopping never arrives or the items in question are faulty or not as described.

Start by writing to the agency asking it to either remove or change the entry that you think is wrong. It will investigate the matter and find out whether you have been the victim of ID theft or a bank's mistake.

Within 28 days from receipt of your letter the agency should tell you how the bank has responded. If the bank agrees to change the entry, they will authorise the agency to update their records. They should also send updates to any other credit reference agencies they use.

You can also contact your lender directly to query a mistake. If the lender agrees to the discrepancy, ask them to confirm this in writing on their letterhead and send a copy to the agency, asking them to update your file.

The FOS settles disputes between financial companies such as banks and consumers.

If a financial organisation rejects a complaint you make about its services, you can therefore escalate that complaint to the FOS - as long as you have given the company in question at least eight weeks to respond.

The FOS will then investigate the case, and could force the company to offer you compensation should it see fit.

Bailiffs are allowed to take some of your belongings to sell on to cover certain debts, including unpaid Council Tax and parking fines.

They can, for example, take so-called luxury items such as TVs or games consoles. However, they cannot take essentials such as fridges or clothes.

What's more, they can only generally enter your home to take your stuff if you leave a door or window open or invite them in.

You are therefore within your rights to refuse them access and to ask for related documents such as proof of their identity. If they try to force their way in, you can also call the police to stop them.

Private sector debt collectors do not have the same powers as bailiffs, whatever they tell you.

They cannot, for example, enter your home and take your possessions in lieu of payment.

In fact, they can only write, phone, or visit your home to talk to you about paying back the debt. As with bailiffs, you can also call the police if you feel physically threatened.

Thanks to the Distance Selling Regulations, you actually have more rights buying online or by phone than on the High Street.

You can, for example, send most goods back within a week, for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.

You will usually need to pay for the return delivery, though. The seller must then refund you within 30 days.

We enter into contracts all the time, whether it be to join a gym, switch energy supplier or take out a loan.

In most cases, once you've signed a contract, you are legally bound by it. In some situations, however, you have the right to cancel it within a certain timeframe.

Credit agreements, for example, can be cancelled within 14 days. And online retailers must tell you about your cancellation rights for any contract made up to stand up legally.


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