When brokers go rogue

When brokers go rogue

We welcome the news that energy regulator Ofgem wants stronger powers to protect the country’s smallest businesses from overzealous energy brokers. It’s just a shame it’s taken so long for this problem to be tackled.

Over two thirds of small businesses buy electricity and gas from a broker, who acts as an intermediary between suppliers and customers. Good brokers should, in theory, engage with the small business by informing them of the best deals and tariffs on the market — but this doesn’t always happen.

In its recent response to the government’s Consumer Green Paper, Ofgem said:

“Our evidence suggests that some businesses that engage with intermediaries may be misled or left unsatisfied with their treatment. Strengthening our powers to enforce consumer protection law that applies to the non-domestic market, particularly for smaller businesses, would improve our ability to tackle misconduct by intermediaries. We would like to explore this with government.”

In search of honest brokers

When energy suppliers sell to households, Ofgem makes sure they meet strict standards. They must be transparent about who they work for and give accurate price comparisons. Suppliers have received big fines for breaking these rules.

It’s clear that small businesses need similar protections. We give advice to small businesses through our consumer service helpline and Extra Help Unit. Our advisers have helped with cases where brokers have used sharp practice, even outright fraud, to win contracts. The financial impact on businesses who’ve been mis-sold can be severe — at its worst, it can tip a profitable business into the red.

Last year, we published a list of the most common problems with brokers that small businesses contacted us about.

The list includes aggressive sales, lack of transparency, misrepresentation and mis-selling. More specific examples include brokers claiming to be from an official body, claiming a new product is necessary and hiding commercial relationships with specific energy suppliers. There’s no obligation to record the conversation between a broker and a business that leads to a sale, which means complaints are very difficult to prove. Instead, these businesses rely on the good will of their energy supplier to end their contract.

This lack of protection has dire consequences not just for individual businesses but for the market as a whole.

There’s evidence of an engagement gap in the sector and we think some of this is down to the behaviour of brokers. The good ones are good, but if you’ve had a bad experience in the past, you might not be willing to use a broker again. This is bad for the market and for consumers because there won’t be the same pressure to keep prices down.

What can be done?

To combat this, there needs to be regulation of energy brokers. We’ve been calling for this since 2004, but it’s still the case that business owners can’t rely on the same basic protections in their business premises as they can in their homes.

At Citizens Advice, we believe the right response is a mandatory code of practice. This code should reflect the 6 voluntary principles we developed with Ofgem to encourage good practice among brokers. These clearly outline to the energy industry clear expectations of how we expected energy brokers to behave.

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Too many people struggle to make a Universal Credit claim

Too many people struggle to make a Universal Credit claim

Universal Credit has been back in the news over the past couple of weeks, after the National Audit Office highlighted a number of delivery challenges with the system.

These challenges were inevitable — Universal Credit is the biggest change ever to the welfare system and affects around 7 million people. The real test for the government is whether they’re willing and able to act on emerging evidence, and make the necessary improvements so it works for everyone.

We support the principles of Universal Credit. From our experience of advising hundreds of thousands of people about the previous benefits system each year, we recognise the need to simplify the system.

But it’s clear more needs to be done to make sure Universal Credit works for everyone. We’re encouraged the Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, has already made changes — and indicated last week she’s willing to make more. But with the rollout accelerating, changes need to happen more quickly.

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Manchester Women Making History!

Manchester Women Making History!

Are you a young woman aged 18-30? Do you want to make history? Then this programme is for you.

On the Citizens Advice Manchester Manchester Women Making History programme you will learn about women in democracy, equality rights, the history of the suffragette movement and women's right to vote, inspirational women campaigners, working class women in parliament and Manchester’s suffragette story.

You will participate in debates, work with other participants to develop a speech, and learn to plan and execute a campaign. We will also hold an event during parliament week which will give you the opportunity to pose questions to female politicians and community leaders about their experiences of democracy.

We anticipate this will be a popular programme and we have a limited number of spaces. Filling in this form does not guarantee your place; we will contact you in due course.

You can access the sign up form here: 

bit.ly/McrWomenAre 

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Citizens Advice Manchester works with Money Advice Trust to launch resources to help debt agencies use WhatsApp for the delivery of money advice

Citizens Advice Manchester have this week launched resources which will help debt agencies to utilise WhatsApp as an effective tool for delivering money advice.

After receiving Innovation Grants funding from the Money Advice Trust in 2017, Citizens Advice Manchester ran a successful pilot delivering debt advice via WhatsApp. People were able to get in touch with the project via a unique number, and then communicated with an adviser through text and photo messaging to provide details of the issue and receive personalised advice and support.

In its year-long pilot, the project successfully supported 490 individuals, and 88% of people did not need any additional support following contact on WhatsApp. Users have been overwhelmingly satisfied with the service, with one user saying:

“They got back to me straight away… They gave me a lot of information, gave me a few options, and were very empathetic to my situation and that always helps because I feel like the problem has been shared with someone.”

Key benefits of using this channel include free access, a recognised platform used around the world, a quicker advice process, and a feeling of anonymity helping users to feel more comfortable disclosing the problems they are facing. Citizens Advice Manchester have now taken the learning from this project and developed a toolkit for other agencies looking to deliver money advice in this way; these can be accessed via Wiser Adviser, part of the Money Advice Trust, which provides training and support to the free debt advice sector.

Dan Pye, Head of Specialist Advice & Legal services at CAM said:

"Receiving an Innovation Grant provided us with an exciting opportunity to use WhatsApp to deliver debt advice has been invaluable in allowing us to provide support to groups of clients who may not otherwise have used our service. This has proved incredibly popular, and we will embed this into our service for follow-up support to our clients where needed."

Joanna Elson, Chief Executive at the Money Advice Trust said:

“We are delighted to have funded the WhatsApp debt advice project and I want to congratulate Citizens Advice Manchester on their work.

“Testing new advice channels, like WhatsApp, helps us to continue learning and broadens the options available to access debt advice.

“One initial finding shows that the use of WhatsApp was particularly helpful in engaging people whose first language was not English.

“I encourage advisers and advice agencies to look at the project resources available via Wiseradviser to see how they may be able to use this approach in their setting.”

Difficulty in paying your Water Bill

Difficulty in paying your Water Bill

If you are on Universal Credit you can support from United Utilities with your water bill. They can delay your water bill payments for up to eight weeks until your first Universal Credit payment arrives. If this applies to you, please give them a call on 0800 072 6765

If you're having trouble paying your water bill, please give them a call on 0800 072 6765. Their team who are specially trained to handle sensitive issues and are dedicated to getting you back on track. Alternatively, please complete their struggling to pay form and they will call you back.

They offer a package of support based around your personal circumstances. 

Find out more at https://www.unitedutilities.com/services/your-bill/difficulty-paying-your-bill/


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Are you getting paid less than minimum wage or living wage?

Are you getting paid less than minimum wage or living wage?

Most people who work are entitled to get paid at least the National Minimum Wage. This includes casual workers, people on zero hours contracts and agency workers.

There is also a higher rate called the National Living Wage. You should be paid this if you’re 25 or older and you’re entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

Your employer can’t fire you or alter your work to get around the National Living Wage. For example, they can’t take work that you've been doing away from you and give it to someone under 25 to avoid having to increase your wage. If you think your employer has changed your job to get around the minimum wage, it's worth getting advice.

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Working people now rely on Universal Credit to make ends meet

By the time it is fully rolled out in 2022, more than half of the 7.2 million households claiming Universal Credit will be in work. 3.9 million working families moving onto Universal Credit will face changes and challenges when they do so. New analysis from Citizens Advice finds some workers may struggle to achieve financial stability on Universal Credit - particularly those affected by cuts made to the benefit since 2015 and those in less traditional forms of work.

These two reports explore the changes to people’s work incentives on Universal Credit and the specific issues for those in non-traditional work. They also look at ways these problems could be addressed to make the new benefit fit for purpose in the modern labour market.

Read the reports here

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