Does SSE fine match the offence?

SSE training centre in Perth

In any competitive market where prices are opaque and difficult to understand, there will be mis-selling.

So it is perhaps not surprising that a big power provider, SSE, has today been fined a record £10.5m for what the energy regulator Ofgem calls "numerous breaches of its obligations relating to telephone, in-store and doorstep sales activities".

These breaches included misleading customers about the size of bills they would receive and about tariffs offered by rivals.

Ofgem says that there were "failures at all stages of SSE's sales processes, from the opening lines on the doorstep, in-store or over the phone, through to the confirmation process which follows a sale".

It is unedifying stuff.

That said, given that historically most power companies have offered a dizzying and confusing number of different packages and tariffs for gas and electricity, some would argue that the whole business of marketing power is a mis-selling racket. And that's why attempts by the regulator to introduce greater simplicity and transparency into pricing have been widely welcomed.

So what is perhaps most shocking in Ofgem's report is the disclosure that "the people employed to do the main auditing of doorstep sales received a commission on sales and therefore had a financial interest in not reporting misbehaviour".

The idea that the internal watchdogs had an incentive to turn the Nelsonian eye on sales people is an interesting approach to governance.

To be clear, SSE says it has learned its lesson - and unlike many companies publicly spanked by a regulator in this way, it was prepared to answer for its sins on Radio 4's Today Programme this morning (so that's a big hello to our banks, which don't yet have the confidence of an SSE to look their customers in the eye, as it were).

Squeezed bonuses

Its corporate affairs director Alan Young said that compliance monitoring was now an independent operation within SSE, and that the company was guaranteeing to reimburse customers made worse-off by switching to it.

Doorstep selling by SSE was now history, he added.

That said, no heads have rolled among SSE's senior executive team - although their bonuses have been squeezed, Mr Young said.

So here's a question: does the punishment match abuses which went on for up to three years?

On the one hand, the £10.5m - which goes to the Treasury - may be greater than the consumer detriment proved by Ofgem.

On the other, that fine is 0.5% of the cash generated year-in and year-out by SSE. For a company of SSE's size and stability, it is a financial gnat bite.

Robert Peston Article written by Robert Peston Robert Peston Economics editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 676.

    671 AfA. My comment wasn't aimed at you since John Locke asked me a question. I chose to ignore your comment earlier because I don't like the way you write. You speak in riddles. Peace!

    672 JL. You are half right. It sounds like the 2nd part of Marx's quote. I just wanted clarification because your post seemed to be accusing me of something.

  • rate this

    Comment number 675.

    Years ago when the energy mkt was first deregulated I was a student and took a summer job going door to door for some energy company - can't even remember their name now. I left after 2 days as it was obviously a scam. We were told to tell people they were the last on their street to sign up and give the impression signing contract was a formality they had to do. This has been going on for years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.

    Why is the Chief Executive Officer of this company not facing fraud charges? If this was an FSA regulated business selling insurance based warranties, for example, he would be. It is clear that the directors were aware of the tactics employed. This is what happens when you create spurious competitive structures to sell products where no differentiation exists. Rail and gas are the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    buy a generator or solar panels and make your own electricity cut these sharks out of your life, more efficient cuts the transmission losses from the power station to your house.

  • Comment number 672.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.

    Kyle @669
    "where I'm coming from"?

    IF 'coming from' some source of 'Liberal Anti-Democratic Revelations', then 'mutual understanding' will boil down to a mistaken, absurd if not dishonest, attempt to justify free-riding, a practice that comes with infinite variety in denial of obvious-to-others debts of fact & honour, in persuasion from rational & moral conentment with equal partnership


  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    The nationalised utilities were not perfect but their energy sales people were not downright dishonest like most of these sharks. I worked as a scientist in the electricity industry and many of us foresaw this happening.
    I asked about the hundredth of them who knocked on my door how long he'd worked for them - "two years". I said I'd been with them 30 years when it was an "honest industry."

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    658. John Locke
    I'm glad you understand where I'm coming from. I'm not necessarily opposed to free markets.

    "...getting close to Marxism..." Oooh, is it some sort of crime? How exciting ;o) Please explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 668.

    'Liberal Anti-Democratic'?

    "Does SSE fine match the offence?"

    Robert Peston's question is quizzically rhetorical

    In what 'moral universe' might such apparently trivial address of fraud 'match' the highly profitable 'offence'?

    Certainly not in a universe of 'competitors' subject to and not immune from the same advantage-taking temptations!

    Is "on-topic question" @652 consciously rhetorical?

  • Comment number 667.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 666.

    No disagreement from me about removing the shield. That said, Limited Liability refers to financial liabilities. It limits the ability of creditors to seize the personal assets of directors. It does not limit the prosecution of directors who break the law. The fraud act is worded to cover both knowing and reckless representations. Prosecute the marketers and they will shop the directors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 665.

    Liberal Anti-Democratic Empty Revelations
    Ref: JL@652

    "If our democracy" We do not have a democracy: see definition @644

    "instead of being able to choose where our energy comes from…" You have filters in your supply pipes & cables, or you believe leaflets?

    IF, in genuine democracy, I invested time & money building a windmill, I would 'agree' with its maintenance as long as worthwhile

    If we,

  • Comment number 664.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 663.

    "Acting on greed
    … is wrong"
    Then 'greed' itself must be wrong
    Its meaning distinct from 'hunger'

    Avoidance of consequential 'wrong', must depend on timely recognition of 'the feeling' (whether seen as natural or unnatural), and on sufficient registration of such consequence (immediate, remote, or at Heaven's Gate)

    Bad eggs are eggs
    Eggs are not necessarily bad
    But bad eggs still bad!

  • Comment number 662.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 661.

    "The way forward is, surely, to make the Chief Execs of these companies personally, criminally liable."

    They are criminally liable. The laws on fraud and being an accessory to a crime are on the statute book. The police, the CPS and the ministry of justice have simply failed to enact them. Ask your MP why not ? Ed ought to ask Dave next question time,


  • rate this

    Comment number 660.

    Life & choice are to a highly significant extent (in omniscience to an absolute extent) 'ruled' by starting points (such as Big Bang) & rules of procedure (laws of physics, chemistry, biology, shareable society)

    Our 'choices' are subjectively 'free', but their survival & ours are subject to survival of the fittest. Failing to distinguish free-riders from true leaders, whole societies may perish

  • rate this

    Comment number 659.

    Is it just me or is the scariest part of this story the non event it seems to have (not) stirred in the news columns...? You have to dig deep into even the BBC site now to find out that anything actually vagualy dodgy happened at all in the past few days.

    As per the banking scandals (Barclays) and the jornalism scandals (News of the World) surely other firms took part in this fraudulent activity.

  • Comment number 658.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 657.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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