Special Report

The consumer protection debate – does more need to be done protect householders with green upgrades?

Calls for a complete review of the protections in place for people carrying out renewable upgrades to their homes have been welcomed.

Houses wit solar panels.

Which?, Nationwide and Energy UK recently penned a joint letter to Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Claire Coutinho, in which they expressed concerns over what they described as a ‘number of protection gaps’ for consumers. These gaps, they say, could ‘undermine the net zero transition’ if not addressed.

And while the sentiments in the letter have been welcomed, including by MCS and HIES, the latter also encouraged stakeholders to acknowledge the good progress that has been made.

The open letter

In their letter, Which? Nationwide and Energy UK wrote: “Poor quality installations, especially those that impact the ability for a consumer to heat their home, can cause significant detriment to a household’s finances and physical health. As well as this, there is the potential for the bad experiences of early adopters to undermine wider trust in an emerging market’.”

They said a more robust protections framework is needed to stamp out ‘rogue traders’ and deliver a more consistent level of protection, which could also help unlock greater levels of private finance for home retrofit.

The protection gaps identified are:

  • A confusing landscape of overlapping codes and schemes making it difficult for consumers to have their complaints addressed in a straightforward or timely fashion
  • Inconsistent levels of financial protections in the sector which can leave consumers out of pocket if something goes wrong and their installer has ceased to trade
  • Lack of quality assurance and redress for consumers in the ‘able-to-pay’ sector leaving some consumers without any protection at all

The three organisations have asked to meet with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to discuss the issues further.

An industry view: Poor installs will hamper road to net zero

Griff Thomas, MD for GTEC and heatly, supports the views in the letter.

He said: “Describing a ‘confusing landscape of overlapping codes and schemes’, I have to say that I share their concerns.

“Poor installs will only serve to hamper the road to net zero, leading to distrust in low carbon technologies and the people that install them. As identified in the letter, word of mouth from friends and family is still one of the most common influences on people’s decision making. One bad experience can have a wide knock-on effect.

“This is not the first time this issue has been raised; in February, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) noted inconsistent levels of financial protection and a lack of quality assurance, particularly for those consumers paying for upgrades themselves.

“Installers need confidence in the competency schemes they sign-up to, they need to feel safe in the knowledge that they are supported and the technologies they install have also met stringent and standardised criteria. Consumers need confidence that the installers they choose to carry out low carbon upgrades are credible and skilled, and, if things do go wrong, there are systems in place to protect their investment, with a buck that stops with an expert who will fix their problem quickly – even if the installer that did the works in the first-place ceases to trade.”

A consumer code view: Over 300,000 protected so far

Faisal Hussain, managing director at HIES, said: “HIES is a Chartered Trading Standards Institute Consumer Code within the renewable sector and has been providing consumer protection since 2012.

“We operate a comprehensive code of practice which our members must adhere to. We are supportive of the Competition and Markets Authority’s five principles and are actively working with them to improve standards.

“However, stakeholders are failing to acknowledge the good work that is currently undertaken to ensure consumers are protected. HIES are very proud of the work we carry out and have protected over 300,000 consumers worth circa £2 billion in contract values.

“Consumers using a HIES member have free access to our dispute resolution facilities. Our 2023 statistics show that 53% of complaints HIES received are resolved on average in 3.07 days, 34% of complaints referred to mediation are resolved on average in 19.14 days and if, in the unlikely event we cannot resolve the complaint, consumers have free access to the ombudsman.

“Over the last few years HIES has lobbied to change the complaint management process. In particular, to make consumer codes the single point of contact for consumers wishing to complain, and the consumer code would then liaise with the certification body.

“With regards to financial protection, insurance providers that HIES have used in the past shows the value that IBGs provide; in fact one particular contractor’s consumers have made claims on the IBG which has reached over £900,000 in total so far. Over £2.5 million has been spent in claims related to renewable installation.

“We recognise that there are differences amongst IBGs across the sector – some cover workmanship only and some cover both product and workmanship. There are no clear guidelines to ensure that IBGs have commonality – hence why there may be variations in length and coverage.

“Consumer protection can always be improved and we are very supportive in enhancing standards rather than just starting from zero, which could mean that consumers are left disadvantaged. We are very open to working with all stakeholders on improving consumer protection.”

Certification body view: Standards keep the cowboys out

Ian Rippin, CEO at MCS, said: “We welcome the letter calling for a review of consumer protections for those carrying out green upgrades to their home.

“This amplifies MCS’ own findings from an extensive programme of research conducted in 2022 on the sector’s current approach to consumer protection in the small-scale renewables sector specifically. The research found that current consumer protections fall short of what consumers expect to be in place.

“Despite the reliable track record of small-scale renewable technologies, these systems are still unfamiliar to some who need reassurance before making the investment.

“Compliance with MCS standards offers vital protections for consumers, while benefitting quality installers by keeping the cowboys out. Since publishing our research findings we’ve committed to instigating change for the greater good of the market.

“We’ve shared our plans to strengthen and simplify our scheme as a win-win for consumers and the industry alike, putting us further down the path of addressing the net zero, cost-of-living and energy security imperatives.

“Consumer protection is vital to consumer confidence, and consumer confidence is the only route to mass adoption of renewables for homes and businesses.”

What do you think? Is greater consumer protection needed for people carrying out green upgrades to their homes? We’d love to hear from you. Please write to linda@renewableenergyinstaller.co.uk.

Image credit: iStock