East Belfast Alliance Councillors, Michael and Naomi Long, have expressed concerns about Phoenix Natural Gas billing policy in the aftermath of the
company’s announcement of plans to increase prices by 25% in the autumn.
The councillors said that the current billing procedures together with the proposed hike in charges was bad news for customers and would make the likelihood of large bills at the end of the first year of use, in particular, very likely.
Their own experience as new customers highlighted the issue. As Phoenix customers, they were advised by a Phoenix representative who undertook a home assessment, that their bill would likely be £30- 35 per month and that direct debit was the most cost effective way of paying. Unlike other utility companies, Phoenix only billed customers at the end of the first year rather than quarterly and when they received the first bill found that the annual bill was £888.76 and that they owed £513.76 for immediate payment.
Following his experience, Cllr Michael Long wrote to Phoenix last autumn suggesting that more realistic monthly charges should be advised to
customers and that bills should be sent quarterly, particularly in the first year to ensure that customers are aware of any underpayment at the earliest opportunity, and can adjust their payments accordingly to avoid a large and unexpected end of year bill.
In a response to correspondence, Phoenix recently outlined changes that have been made to the direct debit system. Firstly, direct debit ‘estimators’
are made available to new customers allowing them to determine a more realistic monthly payment. In addition, all meters are now read after 6 months of the initial year of conversion allowing the company to provide better advice on the level of direct debit payment required.
Cllr Michael Long said, “I was very disappointed by my experience of Phoenix’s billing system. Clearly, billing once or even twice per year makes it all too easy for new customers to run up huge and unexpected debts which are difficult to pay off. Fuel poverty affects many people in Northern Ireland, and one of the most important tools to alleviate it is the ability to budget properly for fuel payments. A large, unexpected bill, such as the one which we received, could easily push a family into serious debt, particularly in low income households. Given the announcement of the proposed price hike this week, the problem is all the more acute.
“People who opt not to pay by direct debit already receive more regular bills, but direct debit is the most cost effective way of paying and so they
lose out financially. It was with these concerns in mind that we contacted Phoenix, asking that they provide better estimates of likely costs for new customers and provide bills quarterly like other utilities such telephone companies and electricity suppliers.
Cllr Naomi Long MLA added, “Whilst predicting low monthly bills may encourage people to sign up initially, Phoenix have a responsibility to advise people realistically of the likely costs. I welcome the fact that they have now started to make moves in the right direction. The new ‘estimator’ certainly allows customers to predict more accurately their likely monthly expenditure and the introduction of a reading after 6 months for new customers means that any shortfall in payments can be noticed and rectified more quickly.
“However, I feel that it would still be better for the company to bill customers every quarter, as other utilities do so that people have as much information as possible when budgeting for costs. This week’s proposed price hike will potentially lead to even larger shortfalls and I would hope that Phoenix will look again at their billing policy in order to provide better service for customers.”