With the news emerging this week that five of the UK's biggest and most reputable comparison sites have been hiding the best energy deals from consumers, one could be forgiven for thinking that things cannot get much worse for the "broken" energy market. Ofgem and the CMA's inquiry into the profits of the big six, price hikes and question marks over wholesale energy prices have all contributed to a tumultuous year for the gas and electricity sector. This latest news looks set to worsen the reputation of the market to customers further yet, surely the last thing that powers from within the industry would have wanted.
What Have The Comparison Sites Been Up To?
The Big Deal, a website concerned with saving energy customers money via a concept called collective switching, revealed at the start the week that GoCompare, MoneySupermarket, uSwitch, Confused.com and CompareTheMarket has been hiding the best deals from customers in order to boost the commissions they are making. The news made it onto many areas of the British media including a prime time slot on BBC Breakfast but has been vehemently denied by all of the comparison sites in question. The official line has been that they are all in line with Ofgem's regulations, although these are likely to be changed in the near future in order to better serve the interests of the public.
The problem, according to The Big Deal, is that any customers choosing the "switch today" options or their respective equivalents are not necessarily getting the cheapest energy prices. The accusation is that these sites are hiding these deals because they may not necessarily get the same commissions or indeed, any commissions at all. So confident are the Big Deal regarding this that they have written to all of the comparison giants to ask for clarification.
How Have The Comparison Sites Responded?
Although all the big comparison sites seem to be confident that their conduct has been appropriate, a few have seen fit to respond with some official comment.
GoCompare have argued that they do not have such options and that their site clearly states there are other options, to which many are asking why the cheapest option isn't the most readily available.
Dan Plant, Editor in Chief at MoneySuperMarket stated "The option for customers to filter results - to only see products they can buy through MoneySuperMarket.com - is displayed clearly and prominently, and is necessary as some providers choose not to list products on comparison websites."
Kate Rose, Head of Energy at Confused.com said "Some suppliers do not make certain tariffs available through comparison sites, so we give customers the option to exclude these from the results."
Ofgem's Confidence Code
A big issue that has come under the spotlight as a result of the Big Deal's revelations is whether or not Ofgem's Confidence Code is up to strength. The energy regulator has already stated that this may need to be reviewed so it has the best interests of home and business energy customers at heart.
All the sites in question are adhering to the code, but the fact that the best prices are being hidden or customers are being underhandedly dissuaded from choosing them perhaps shows some cracks in the system. Although Ofgem has its hands full at present with its probe into the Big Six Energy Suppliers, one eye should be kept on the Confidence Code and whether it will allow these somewhat controversial practices to continue.
Ofgem has confirmed that it will be looking into this matter as "part of its wider and ongoing project".
What Does All This Mean for Energy Customers?
Ultimately, the important thing to consider regarding this issue is how and to what extent this will effect energy customers looking for the fairest deal. Consumer's confidence in energy suppliers, comparison sites and third party introducers (TPI's) appears to be at an all-time low as is suggested by the fact that millions of business and domestic energy customers are yet to switch supplier; despite the huge savings that can be made. Thankfully, individuals looking for the lowest prices can still be confident of getting the best information, provided they know what they are dealing with.
With the aforementioned changes set to take place regarding the Confidence Code and likely reaction to this news from the comparison sites, things may well become more transparent in the near future. Until then, consumers are urged to ensure they are selecting the appropriate options when checking prices and be aware of the best deals being filtered out. Alternatively, there are specialist energy comparison sites such as Love Energy Savings, who confidently state that they always display the cheapest commercial energy rates with no filtering whatsoever.