Figures from the Energy Ombudsman show that it saw a rise both in complaints about backbilling and those it upheld, despite a ban introduced in 2018.
Over 2019, the first full year the ban was in place, the ombudsman resolved 2,539 backbilling complaints, up from 1,903 in 2018. There was a slight year-on-year increase in the proportion of backbilling complaints that it upheld, from 79 percent, or 1,495 in 2018, to 83 percent or 2,099 in 2019.
In March 2018, energy customers owing their suppliers had their liabilities limited to 12 months after the regulator, Ofgem, introduced the ban.
Backbills can result from problems with a supplier’s billing system, or from suppliers estimating bills until they have an actual meter reading which may show that the customer’s consumption is higher than expected. Suppliers then send a ‘catch-up’ bill to recover the difference.
According to Ofgem, the typical backbill is in the region of £1,160. However, they can be much higher, leaving customers struggling financially and often falling into debt.
Charity Citizens Advice said it helped 2,691 people in England and Wales with backdated bills in the year to November 2019, with 779 of those cases identified by advisers as likely to date back over a year.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “A large and unexpected bill is very worrying for anyone who receives it. To protect customers, suppliers are not allowed to send out bills for energy use dating back more than a year.
“Regular and accurate bills are basic customer service. Yet billing issues are still the most common complaint from people contacting our helpline.
“Ofgem should make customer service a top priority and step in sooner when energy companies don’t come up to scratch.
“Customers who think their gas or electricity supplier may be billing them unfairly should contact the company directly in the first instance. Our consumer service helpline and website can also give guidance.”
A spokesman for the Energy Ombudsman said: “Backbilling is an important and topical issue in the energy sector, but accounts for a relatively small proportion of the complaints that we deal with.
“It is important to point out, however, that any decision to uphold a backbilling complaint may or may not be due to a failure on the energy supplier’s part to apply the backbilling rules correctly. This is just one of several reasons why a backbilling complaint would be upheld.
“Energy suppliers are having to get to grips with the new mandatory backbilling rules and higher standards introduced by Ofgem in 2018, which may explain the increase in complaint numbers.
“We are working pro-actively with suppliers with a view to bringing clarity and reducing backbilling complaint numbers for the benefit of consumers.”