Page last updated at 11:17 GMT, Saturday, 18 October 2008 12:17 UK

Energy bills 'often inaccurate'

Energy customer Roland Gilliam says bills are difficult to work out

Energy customers could be paying higher prices for gas and electricity used months earlier, the new watchdog Consumer Focus has warned.

The six biggest energy suppliers have raised gas and electricity prices by up to 34% since the summer.

But 16 million people could be charged a higher rate for energy used before the increase because of inaccurate estimated bills, says the group.

The Energy Retail Association denies the industry is profiteering.

Consumer Focus, which began work earlier this month, says about a third of customers will get estimated bills this quarter.

These bills will take into account energy used before the summer price rises and after, but they may not take into account the price rise.

5 July - EDF Energy
Gas up 22%, electricity up 17%
30 July - British Gas
Gas up 35%, electricity up 9%
21 Aug - Eon
Gas up 26%, electricity up 16%
21 Aug - Scottish & Southern
Gas up 29.2%, electricity up 19.2%
29 Aug - Scottish Power
Gas up 34%, electricity up 9%
29 Aug - Npower
Gas up 26%, electricity up 14%

This could result in a huge and possibly inaccurate catch-up bill down the line once the customer's meter is read, because the supplier will not know which units of energy were used before the price rise.

"Consumers could be paying higher prices for gas or electricity used in the past, while for companies it results in a very nice windfall," Robert Hammond, of Consumer Focus told the BBC.

Estimated bills

A colleague at the group explained that the situation would only really change when so-called "smart" meters were rolled out across the country.

These devices offer a two-way communication between the energy supplier and household, offering real-time information on gas and electricity use and giving more accurate bills.

They are currently being trialled by the energy regulator Ofgem.

In the meantime, Consumer Focus urges customers to check their bills for the letter "E" which means that the charge is estimated.

And if that is the case to take a reading of their meter and contact their supplier.

The Energy Retail Association said the industry was not profiteering from the practice but did warn customers not to rely on estimated bills.

"It's important to get a correct bill rather than an estimated bill," said Gary Felgate at the Energy Retail Association.

The best way of doing this is to take a reading of the meter on the first day of a price rise taking effect, Consumer Focus added.

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