Ofgem to Investigate PrePay Meters

Ofgem to Investigate Forcibly Installed PrePay Meters
More than half a million pre-payment energy meters have been forcibly installed in people’s homes over the last six years, according to figures obtained by BBC Radio 5 live. Ofgem said it would investigate after the figures – for England, Scotland and Wales – were released.

Energy suppliers can gain a court order to install a pre-pay meter when customers run up debt.

Industry body Energy UK said pre-paying helped some people manage a budget. But Citizens Advice said pre-pay customers got a “raw deal”, paying £80 a year more on average than direct debit customers.

Energy watchdog Ofgem said it would be “looking into reasons behind the increase in the number of PPMs installed for non-payment of debt on a warrant visit”. “Suppliers can only install a pre-payment meter where it is safe and reasonably practical for the consumer to use,” a spokesman said.

Philip Cullum, head of Ofgem’s consumer team, told BBC Breakfast that the body had clear guidelines on the issue and wanted to reassure consumers in debt that companies are “obliged to help them and negotiate what’s a fair rate of repayment”.

Audrey Gallacher of Citizens Advice, which has an online guide to the meters, described the figures as “concerning”, but “not a big surprise”, and said that an increasing number of people had contacted the organisation complaining of problems with the devices. “Pre-payment meter customers can’t take advantage of the competitive energy market,” she added. “Many people become trapped on them and can’t get a better deal.”

Kaylee Abbott is a single mum who lives in Stokesley, North Yorkshire, with her four-year-old daughter Lydia. She lives on benefits, and got herself in debt of about £700 on her energy bills. She has recently had two pre-payment meters fitted under court warrant, and around £4 will be taken from both the gas and electricity meter each week when she tops it up, to help pay off her debt.

“In a way, I’m glad it’s been fitted because it is paying my debt off, but in another way I’m thinking, what do I put on first, what’s going to run out first?” she said. “I need electricity for Lydia to watch telly and then gas to cook and to eat and to keep us warm. It’s a nightmare. I just want it paid off so I’m better off and when I’m topping it up it’s all mine and I’m not running out as quick.”

Brian Jackson, director for credit and collection for British Gas, said: “When we go through a warrant process, as we did with Kaylee, it’s after we’ve exhausted all of those other avenues to provide support that really helps keep customers on track.”

Energy UK, the umbrella body for energy suppliers, said suppliers only installed pre-payment meters with a court warrant “as a last resort to help customers manage their debt”. Chief executive Lawrence Slade said they were not always the most expensive form of payment and that prices had come down over recent years.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he added: “As an industry, we’re doing more every day to try and improve that and to bring in different options for customers in those circumstances.” He said the meters could help people manage their energy use, saying: “People will often ask for a pre-payment meter voluntarily because they like the fact it gives them more control over their consumption.”

The figures, supplied by Ofgem in response to a Freedom of Information request. showed about 97,000 pre-pay gas and electricity meters were installed in England, Wales and Scotland last year alone. In 2009, the first year figures were made available for, there were 36,837 electricity pre-payment meters and 26,711 gas meters installed – a combined total of just over 63,000. In 2014, the figure had risen to 49,615 for electricity and 47,876 gas – totalling about 97,000. The numbers were highest in 2013, when a combined total of about 111,000 pre-payment meters were installed.

A Department of Energy and Climate Change spokesman said: “This government’s priority is to keep bills low for Britain’s families and businesses. To do this we will continue our reform of the energy market, which has seen the number of independent small suppliers increase and bills fall. “Energy suppliers need to do all they can to support their customers who are most vulnerable. We want to understand the reasons behind this increase, so look forward to any future insight Ofgem can offer.”

Amazon’s Reporting of Sales Could Raise Tax Bill

Amazon’s Reporting of Sales Could Raise Tax Bill
Amazon, the global online retailer, is changing the way it records sales in a move that could see it paying more tax.

Transactions carried out in European markets were previously recorded in Luxembourg, with which Amazon had a low-tax agreement. Now sales made through subsidiaries in the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy will be registered in those countries, the retailer has said.

Amazon had received heavy criticism for its tax avoidance policies.

“More than two years ago, we began the process of establishing local country branches of Amazon EU Sarl, our primary retail operating company in Europe,” the company said in a statement. “As of 1 May, Amazon EU Sarl is recording retail sales made to customers through these branches in the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy. Previously, these retail sales were recorded in Luxembourg.”

Amazon added that it was “working on opening a branch for France”.

In recent years, the European Union has intensified its investigations into the tax deals negotiated by global companies with countries such as Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It suspects that such deals amount to illegal state aid and distort competition.

Last year, the European Commission – the EU’s executive arm – launched a formal investigation into Amazon’s tax arrangements with Luxembourg.

And the EU is also looking into tech giant Apple’s tax dealings in Ireland, coffee-shop chain Starbucks’ dealings in the Netherlands, and Italian carmaker Fiat’s agreement with Luxembourg.

Improving Your Home with Plantation Shutters

Improving Your Home with Plantation Shutters
Spring has sprung, and summer will soon be here. If you’ve had any simple home improvements in mind for this year, now is the time to take them on! Beautiful spring weather and warm – but not too hot – temperatures are ideal for house painting and leaving the windows open until the place has had a chance to air out. If you have such a project in mind, then you will want to consider window treatments as well so that you can get the most enjoyment out of the effort that you have put forth in order to beautify your living space.

When considering window treatments, you have numerous options: roller blinds, horizontal or vertical blinds, bamboo curtains and many more. Most homeowners these days find that the simplest, most tasteful window treatments offer clean lines (as opposed to drapes, which also require laundering) and allow the homeowner to better control the amount of light coming into the room. Plantation shutters in particular add a beautiful textural component – without sacrificing that cleanness of line – that other blinds do not, and they are available in a number of different styles.

Full-height plantation shutters are perhaps the simplest, sleekest of all plantation shutter styles. If you relish the idea of being able to maximize the amount of light coming into the room without sacrificing privacy – as we often do with the all-or-nothing option when using regular blinds – then consider tier-on-tier or café-style plantation shutters. Café-style shutters leave the upper half of the window bare while allowing you privacy at the level at which you conduct your everyday life. Similarly, the upper portion of half shutters may be left open to achieve the same effect and closed when light is not desired. Whichever style of plantation shutter you choose, you will be truly amazed by the transformative effect that they have on your home.

The Beautiful Shutter Company
The Beautiful Shutter Company specialises in bespoke plantation shutters and provides installation services all over England. Our years of industry experience and commitment to top-notch service ensure that when you buy from us, the product you receive will suit your exact requirements. To learn more about or range of plantation shutters or installation service, call us today on 01642 688049 or visit www.thebeautifulshuttercompany.com

The Beautiful Shutter Company brings a wealth of experience to the window dressing industry and is committed to providing homeowners with the perfect set of high-quality plantation shutters for any home. To learn more about our wide selection of shutters or to book an appointment, call us today on 01642 688049 or visit the Beautiful Shutter Company website.

Business:             The Beautiful Shutter Company

URL:                       www.thebeautifulshuttercompany.co.uk

Bank of England Still Firmly Against Interest Rate Rise

Bank of England Still Firmly Against Interest Rate Rise
The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) remains unanimously against raising interest rates, according to minutes from the May meeting. Committee members voted 9-0 in May to hold interest rates steady at 0.5%. The minutes said that inflation was likely to remain close to zero in the very near term, reflecting drops in food, energy and other prices.

But house prices could face “upside risks” in the second half of the year.

After the minutes’ release, the pound was trading close to its high for the session, at $1.55.

Two out of the nine policymakers stayed “finely balanced” between voting to hold or raise bank rates, the minutes said. Committee members also voted unanimously in favour of not increasing the bank’s £375bn asset purchase programme, known as quantitative easing.

CBI says that EU Membership is in UK’s National Interest

CBI says that EU Membership is in UK’s National Interest
Businesses should “speak out early” in favour of remaining in a reformed European Union, the president of the Confederation of British Industry says. Sir Mike Rake will argue at the group’s annual dinner that firms “must be crystal clear that membership is in our national interest”. There are “no credible alternatives” to EU membership, Sir Mike will say.

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on the UK’s EU membership by the end of 2017.

In the run-up to his speech, Sir Mike told the BBC’s Today programme: “We need to remind ourselves that we’re part of a market of 500 million people to which 50% of our exports go. “Most businesses and governments want to see a reform that allows us to grow. Reforms can be made that we believe can improve our competitiveness without the need for treaty change.”

This evening, Sir Mike will say that it is now time for business to “turn up the volume” on the “crucial issue” – “speaking out clearly and in a language which people can understand”.

He will tell the 1,000 businessmen and women, and politicians: “In the months to come, our country will have to make its own choice. A choice between openness and isolation, between shaping the future or retreating into the past. “The question is not whether the UK would survive outside the EU, but whether it would thrive.”

But he will also call for the UK to redouble its efforts to secure EU reform. “Reform will not happen overnight, but by working with our allies on an ambitious, yet achievable, agenda, we can make it a reality,” he will say.

Businesses so far appear divided over the historic vote.

The British Chambers of Commerce director general John Longworth said on Monday that 55% of his members were in favour of a “reformed Europe”, and said the “in-out debate is more nuanced than a lot of people would have us believe”.

In contrast, the chairman of construction equipment maker JCB said that the UK had nothing to fear from the UK’s exit from the European Union. “We are the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world. We could exist on our own – peacefully and sensibly,” Lord Bamford told BBC Midlands Today.

However, many have urged the government to bring forward the referendum to end the prolonged wait. Mr Longworth said the in-out referendum should “take place as soon as is practical” and Labour party leadership contender Andy Burnham has also called for the promised referendum on Britain’s membership to be brought forward.

Improving Sound Insulation on Existing London Developments

Improving Sound Insulation on Existing London Developments
Many of the dwellings in London consist of flats converted from large Victorian houses.. Unfortunately at the time of the building conversion, designing for sound insulation was not a high priority and so many of the dwellings suffer from adverse noise transference between the floor and wall partitions. This can be extremely stressful to the occupant’s wellbeing is a major cause for concern.

There are ways to improve the airborne and impact performance by improving the wall/floor partitions ability to reduce the amount of sound transmission from one side of a construction element to the other. By isolating the different materials may not be enough its own and you may need to improve the mass of the partition as well.

Improving Existing Floor Partitions
In our experience of undertaking hundreds of sound tests in London, refurbishment projects usually achieve 30-35dB for airborne sound and 70dB for Impact Sound, if the existing construction has not been acoustically upgraded. These figures do not meet the required 43dB & 64dB as stipulated in Part E of Building Regulations. As sound double every 10dB this is a massive failure and acoustic improvements must be made. Many existing construction consist of a similar construction as shown in as detail 1 below.

Detail 1: Existing Floor Partitions Rated At Approx. 30dB

aptimage

Acoustic Improvements to Existing Floor Partitions

To reduce airborne and impact sound transmission this usually means adding density and isolation to the floor construction. This can be as simple as adding a drop ceiling consisting of 125mm timber frame. The top of the frame must be a minimum of 25mm below the existing ceiling finish – such as lathe and plaster. Then, to the inside of the timber frame add 100mm of Acoustic Wool and two layers of sound-board tacked to the bottom of the timber frame – all boards to be lapped. This should improve your sound test results by approx. 10-15dB depending on the existing site conditions and quality of the installation. Detail 2 shows this in more detail.

Detail 2: Acoustic Flooring Partition Upgrade

aptimage2

Improving Existing Wall Partitions
The standard onsite construction for existing internal walls may be a mixture of 100mm masonry with render applied to either side; or, 100mm timber partition with lathe and plaster to either side. Unfortunately neither of these existing wall constructions will have the acoustic properties to pass Part E in their existing state due to lack of mass and poor isolation values.   

Improving Wall Partitions
One way to quick and simple way improve the acoustic performance of a the dividing wall partition, is to install a 70mm metsec partition in front of the existing wall – its usually best to install this in the largest room. Leave approx. 25mm gap between the back of the metsec and the wall. Then install 50mm acoustic wool to the inside of the metsec and add two layers of soundboard to the outside of the metsec frame, ensuring all boards are properly lapped and the perimeter joints are filled with acoustic mastic.

Taking the above into account is it essential that the acoustic design is addressed right from the start of the refurbishment project, so it prevents delays in handover, i.e. to prevent the dwelling failing the sound testing at building control signoff stage.– a common problem.

We can also offer acoustic design advice and UKAS sound testing on existing flats to ensure that the building handover is not delayed due to noncompliance with Part E. We can also undertake sample sound testing on projects where clients are worried about existing ‘hybrid’ construction/s to help highlight the existing noise levels so acoustic upgrades – if required) can be quickly targeted and implemented.

If you would like advice on your acoustic design or require sound insulation testing in London, please visit the Sound Testing Website, contact us now on 07775623464 or contact us at info@aptsoundtesting.co.uk.

Business:            APT Sound Testing

URL:                   http://www.aptsoundtesting.co.uk/

JCB Boss: UK Should Not Fear EU Exit

JCB Boss: UK Should Not Fear EU Exit
The chairman of construction equipment firm JCB has said the UK should not fear an exit from the European Union. “We are the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world. We could exist on our own – peacefully and sensibly,” Lord Bamford told BBC Midlands Today. Lord Bamford said an exit would enable the UK to “negotiate as our country rather than being one of 28 nations”.

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by the end of 2017.

Lord Bamford was speaking as the privately-held firm reported £303m in underlying earnings for 2014, compared with £313m in 2013.

JCB said the UK’s construction boom had helped offset weaker markets globally. The construction equipment market in both Brazil and China dropped by 17% last year, with Russia down 27% and India by almost 15%, it reported. In contrast, the market for plant machinery in the UK surged by 30%, while in the US it rose 13%. Overall JCB said sales totalled £2.5bn, down 6% on 2013.

Lord Bamford said the firm was “well placed” to capitalise on improving growth in developing countries. “The need for infrastructure in much of the developing world remains acute and will eventually drive a resumption of growth,” he added.

Meanwhile, British Chambers of Commerce director general John Longworth said that 55% of his members were in favour of a “reformed Europe”.

“The ‘reformed’ part of it is quite important, and if you look at a lot of the economic reports… the in-out debate is more nuanced than a lot of people would have us believe,” he told the BBC. He said the BCC was waiting to see what shape reform proposals would take, and that it was down to UK politicians to explain to business what reforms they would be pursuing from Brussels.

Mr Longworth said that, while businesses were used to dealing with uncertainty, an in-out referendum should “take place as as soon as is practical”.

Campaigners Legal Challenge over UK Airport Runways

Campaigners Legal Challenge over UK Airport Runways
A charity, which successfully took the last Heathrow expansion scheme to court, says it could do the same again if ministers press ahead with a new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick. Next month the independent Airports Commission will recommend growing one of the two to handle increased demand.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) says it’s always had “serious concerns” about the commission’s work and it told the BBC the final runways report was “bound to be tainted”.

“Reasonable alternatives have been ignored from the start”, the charity’s Transport Campaign Manager (and barrister) Ralph Smyth said. “If the government decides to proceed we are bound to take legal advice as the first step to a challenge in the courts.”

The commission was set up two and a half years ago after the airports issue threatened to untie the-then Coalition government. Soon, the new government will have to decide whether to go along with its final recommendation or pick its own winner.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told the BBC that the commission had considered 52 proposals. “This included examining whether additional capacity was required and how to make the most of our existing airports and runways,” he said. He added: “The Commission’s final report this summer will mark the end of the most comprehensive and transparent process ever initiated by a British government on aviation.”

Legal challenges have become inevitable with any big project, as opponents probe how well the government has gone about its decision.

The controversial high speed train scheme, HS2, has faced a number of judicial reviews, although none has successfully stopped or even delayed the project.

Five years ago the CPRE joined ranks with a number of councils and the main anti-Heathrow expansion group Hacan in a court action against Labour’s plan for a third runway in west London. Back then, the judge found that the consultation process was flawed because it used old figures for the economy and the environment. It didn’t stop the scheme, but it did send ministers away with a lot of homework to do. Not long after that, the coalition came to power and binned the project altogether.

But Hacan’s chair, John Stewart, has told the BBC he’s not certain that they will go back to the courts this time, if Heathrow comes out on top.  “It’s very expensive, we’d have to know there is a good chance of winning”, he said.

Despite admitting that some residents might be swayed by offers of more financial help and respite from noise, he still maintains that there will be “overwhelming local opposition”, if the government picks Heathrow.

Gatwick expansion also evokes a lot of local opposition, although not on the same scale because fewer people live under the flightpath.

The CPRE remains confident of support no matter which scheme is favoured, “We were part of a broad alliance of local authorities and charities that in 2010 defeated the last attempt to build a new runway,” said Mr Smyth. We can be sure the alliance this time round will be even bigger”.

Rail Workers to Strike on Bank Holiday Monday

Rail Workers to Strike on Bank Holiday Monday
Network Rail workers are to stage a 24-hour strike from 5pm on bank holiday Monday in a row over pay. The UK-wide action will see signallers, maintenance staff and station workers, walk out from 25 May on the busy holiday weekend.

It follows a decisive vote for action from RMT union members and will be the first UK-wide rail strike in 20 years.

Network Rail have previously said they would do anything possible to keep services going if strikes go ahead.

The RMT insists the main impact on passengers will be felt on Tuesday 26 May, but the action is expected to cause disruption on what is traditionally a busy travel period for millions of rail users.

The union said the latest pay proposals from Network Rail fell “well short” of what is required to maintain living standards and job security for nearly 16,000 staff. Members have rejected a four-year deal worth £500 per worker this year, followed by three years of increases matching inflation as well as a no compulsory redundancy commitment to December 2016.

Network Rail runs and develops Britain’s rail tracks as well as looking after signalling, bridges and tunnels. They also run stations in the UK, including 10 in London.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said Network Rail had left members “with no option but to move to a rolling programme of industrial action”. The union had a “massive mandate for action” from members angered at “attacks on their standards of living and their job security”, he said.

Network Rail’s proposals were “wholly inadequate” and failed to recognise the “massive pressures staff are working under to keep services running safely at a time when the company is generating profits of £1bn”, he added.

The action is the first major industrial relations challenge for the new Conservative government, which is committed to tightening the rules on strike ballots – particularly covering essential public services.

EU Referendum Should be Held as Soon as Necessary

EU Referendum Should be Held as Soon as Necessary
Bank of England governor Mark Carney has said that the UK should hold its EU referendum as soon as necessary. “We talk to a lot of bosses and there has been uncertainty whether it’s for the election or the referendum,” said Mr Carney on the BBC’s Today programme.

Analysts fear businesses may delay making investments while there is uncertainty over Britain’s future in the EU. David Cameron has promised a vote on whether the UK stays in the EU by 2017.

“Businesses have not yet acted on that uncertainty,” he said. “Or to put it another way, they are continuing to invest and they are continuing to hire,” but he added that it was in everybody’s interests to resolve the uncertainty.

Companies may also be investing less in technology than they otherwise would do as a result of the wide pool of available workers. Older people willing to work and workers seeking more hours added 500,000 to the labour force over the last two years, said Mr Carney. Migrant labour also expanded the workforce, but its impact was only a tenth of the size according to Mr Carney.

Mr Carney told the BBC’s Today programme that he would “really dampen down” the argument that foreign workers were to blame for lower productivity. As the number of jobseekers falls, attention will turn to productivity, he added.

“Now that spare capacity is being used up,” said Mr Carney. “For the economy to move forward, it’s going to be a story of increased productivity. We think that it’s going to start to pick up over the next few years.”

The UK’s level of productivity per worker fell during the global economic crisis.

“This is one of the great costs of the financial crisis,” said Mr Carney. “What you have in economies after a financial crisis is a sharp drop in productivity. There is a huge opportunity cost.”

Productivity levels have taken longer to recover than expected.

“We have been successively disappointed with the productivity performance of the UK,” Mr Carney told the BBC. Productivity matters in terms of the speed limit for the economy and for when we should raise interest rates,” said Mr Carney. “We think the most likely path for interest rates is up.”

Mr Carney warned on Wednesday that “persistent headwinds continued to weigh on the UK economy”, which would mean more gradual increases in interest rates than had previously been the case.

Inflation was 0% in March for a second month, well below the Bank’s 2% target.

Carney said that the UK might fall into deflation next month, but inflation was expected to pick up, notably towards the end of the year. “Our aim is not just to get the inflation rate back to 2% but to keep it there,” said Mr Carney. “In order to get it there and keep it there, there will be limited and gradual increase in interest rates over the next few years.”