Millionaire Energy Secretary Chris Huhne faced fury from consumers yesterday after appearing to blame them for a crippling rise in household bills.
Mr Huhne accused families of ‘not bothering’ to shop around to find the cheapest gas and electricity providers – at a time when every major utility company has introduced double-digit price hikes over the past year.
Labour described his comments as ‘outrageous’, while money-saving experts said switching was overly complicated.
Mr Huhne claimed families could treat themselves to a £300 mini-break if they constantly bargain-hunted among energy companies: ‘They do not bother. They frankly spend less time shopping around for a bill that’s on average more than £1,000 a year than they would shop around for a £25 toaster,’ he said.
‘If they got that in perspective and said, “OK, we are going to spend a little bit of time shopping around,” they could save very substantial amounts of money’.
Utility price rises have pushed the average household energy bill to almost £1,300 a year, partly driven – as critics pointed out yesterday – by ‘green’ taxes imposed by Mr Huhne’s department.
The stealth levies, introduced to fund Britain’s investment in wind and solar power, are costing families an average of £200 a year – two-thirds of the amount the Cabinet Minister said they should be able to save.
This represents an increase of between 15 and 20 per cent on the average domestic power bill. The money is being used to help fund the building of 10,000 wind turbines and the proposed installation of £7 billion worth of smart meters in homes.
Adam Scorer, of consumer watchdog Consumer Focus, said of customers’ reluctance to shop around: ‘When many consumers look for a better deal, they will see either a thicket of tariffs that are way too complex to understand or they will see six shades of grey.
‘This is not their fault. It is a fault of a market that is not sufficiently competitive and does not offer enough incentives for people to switch.
‘For many consumers, there are savings out there. But if people get turned off by what they see, the responsibility to sort that out lies with suppliers, regulators and Government – not just with consumers.’
Surveys have found that 60 per cent of people have never switched their supplier, saying they find the prospect daunting.
A significant number are not confident using the internet and others say they find the number of competing tariffs, offering a range of discounts, fixed prices and tie-ins, bewildering.
Although it is relatively easy for energy users to check if they can save money – via filling in a short online form – switching supplier can be a long process and involve setting up new accounts and direct-debit arrangements.
Energy watchdog Ofgem admits many consumers find the energy market ‘complex and hard to navigate’, and has announced plans to overhaul the system.
Meg Hillier, Labour’s Energy spokeswoman, said Mr Huhne’s comments demonstrated how ‘out of touch’ he was with families ¬suffering a brutal financial squeeze. ‘The energy market is an example of an unaccountable concentration of power and this Tory-led Government is still not offering a proper solution to tackle their rising costs.
‘These outrageous comments show this Government’s reluctance to take proper action on the rising cost of fuel and to stick up for hard-hit families.’