Whenever government ministers are tackled over the ever increasing cost of gas and electricity, particularly in relation to domestic consumers, the reply that is always received is, “Consumers should switch to a cheaper energy supplier.” Sensible advice, one might say, until it becomes obvious that trying to discover which company is in fact the cheapest supplier is considerably more difficult than might at first be imagined.
Currently, most existing energy comparison sites rely on commissions paid to them by energy companies when a consumer switches from one supplier to another. As a result of this commission system, it can be argued with some force that none of the existing energy comparison sites are truly reliable.
Whilst it is not suggested that such sites are acting fraudulently, it would nevertheless be possible for a site to promote the company that pays the highest commission.
Given the possibility that existing comparison sites may not truly be independent, the only satisfactory solution is for the government to set up its own, independent energy comparison site. Such a site would present the best possible deals being offered not only by the ‘big six’ energy suppliers, all of which have a questionable track record for transparency, but would also promote the benefits of using one of the smaller, independent suppliers that sometimes offer much better deals than the big multinationals.
With the government having no direct financial interest, the state-owned site would be genuinely ‘independent’ in a way that is simply impossible at present. Given that the currently available comparison sites all rely on commissions for their existence, it is hardly surprising that the present confusion is allowed to reign.
A ‘Dual Fuel’ price comparison for example can be very misleading; if a saving can be found in the rate charged for electricity, it is almost certain to be recouped in the charge for gas. Ascertaining the cheapest gas supplier using existing energy comparison sites is also very difficult. The true cost is often extremely well hidden by the complexity of different tariffs, even though this practice is supposed to have ended.
As the state already has access to all the necessary data, the government would be uniquely able to set up a genuinely independent energy comparison site. It cannot be beyond the capability of government statisticians and web designers to produce such a site.
Why the government has so far been reluctant to do so one can only surmise but, as energy prices are almost certain to rise significantly in real terms over the next four years, it has never been more important for such a site to be made available. It is also true to say that although people on the whole tend to distrust governments, particularly where money is concerned, an independent government website is likely to be taken seriously.
Although the government would not benefit in financial terms, providing a facility for making accurate comparisons between different energy suppliers may still do politicians some good; after all, they may win a few extra votes rather than lose them.
Colin Urquart is a political commentator and energy blogger. He works with various agencies to support change in the energy sector.