Government pushes for cheaper household bills

Tom Wilson
30 November 2015
Consumers could benefit from cheaper utility, banking and broadband bills as a result of a wide-ranging government push to drive down household bills through increased competition."Today's plan from the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is to be welcomed," said Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at"Improving competition is key to getting more consumers in control of their finances, cutting bills and improving customer service and choice.We take a look at the scope of the report and what it might mean for you below. Water billsHouseholds in England could be free to choose their water supplier under plans being considered by Ofwat, the water regulator. They'll report back on the plans in April 2016, with a view to introducing the changes in this parliament."Such a market in the water and wastewater sector could see customers become more engaged, push prices down, service up, and encourage more efficient use of an increasingly stretched resource," said Cathryn Ross, chief executive of Ofwat. BankingThe government will look to increase competition in the banking sector by introducing a service to encourage challenger banks, as well as continuing its push to help consumers find the right bank for their needs.Earlier this year, the government launched a tool that helps people find the cheapest bank account based on their usage. In partnership with, the Midata scheme lets people see what they've paid for their bank account over the last year, and what they would have paid with other providers.The report notably doesn't mention hidden charges, which are rife in the UK due to our resistance to pay for banking services. Arguably, the Treasury is as hoodwinked as we are, as the paper estimates the average household spends £35 a year on legal and banking services, but the report also claims the average consumer could save double this - £70 a year - by switching account. BroadbandThe Advertising and Standards Authority (ASA) is already investigating the broadband market as it 'often lacks transparency'. Specifically, it's looking at whether introductory rates are misleading, as total costs can be £240 above the advertised rate.Though there are no new actions announced in this area, the Treasury expects the ASA to 'act swiftly'. DentistryAround half a million people are year may be being mislead about the availability of NHS dental treatment, according to the Office of Fair Trading. This could lead to them being pushed into expensive private treatment unnecessarily. The government is looking to make it clearer what people can receive under the NHS.Unfortunately, it looks like nothing is being done to improve transparency around private dental costs. Earlier this year Moneywise reported that some private clinics charge £185 for a check-up, almost four times the national average. EnergyThe government will continue its push to increase competition. It claims switching to the cheapest provider could save the average household £160 a year.As with banking products, the Midata initiative allows consumers to generate a personalised comparison of the cheapest suppliers based on their actual usage. Mobile phonesThe government has called for providers to automatically unlock phones at the end of a contract, which will let people freely switch to a cheaper service. There will be no laws to enforce this at first, but it will consult in 2016 to see if this is necessary.Consumers spend around £48 million a year unlocking phones at £20 a pop, according to the report. School uniformsA fifth of parents say they've been caused financial difficulty because of the cost of school uniforms. The government says that people who are free to choose between a range of suppliers are far less likely to find costs excessive, so it's looking at ways to increase choice of school uniform suppliers. Legal servicesFollowing recent changes that allow solicitors to share an office with other types of business, the government intends to remove restrictions to make it easier for the likes of supermarkets and estate agents to offer legal services in England and Wales.This could reduce the cost, and increase availability of legal services such as conveyancing, probate and litigation. A consultation will launch in 2016. PharmaciesThe government is looking to make changes that reduce prescription costs and make it easier to buy online or use click and collect services. Asset managementThough not mentioned in today's report, the Financial Conduct Authority independently announced it will investigate whether competition is working effectively between asset managers.

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