HOUSEHOLDERS no longer have the right to switch energy suppliers four weeks after signing up, and may soon face long-term contracts similar to those for mobile phones or broadband services.
The UK energy regulator Ofgem has axed the rule which ties householders to a gas or electricity company for just 28 days, leaving suppliers free to make customers stick with contracts for long periods. Before, people could terminate their contract with a supplier if they were unhappy with high tariffs or poor customer service.
The move is meant to encourage providers to introduce energy-efficient equipment in homes, such as smart meters that can be read remotely. Ofgem says the old rule made it difficult for suppliers to offer long-term deals that include installation of energy-saving measures, because customers were free to switch to a cheaper provider once the work had been carried out.
But consumer groups have expressed concern that scrapping the get-out clause will allow companies to introduce contracts of at least 12 months, and impose financial penalties for those getting out early. This means most consumers could be stuck with their current supplier for a set period even if they find better deals elsewhere.
"If an energy provider annoys you after a couple of months or a rival drops its prices, you want the power to be able to move, not to be stuck with your provider for a year," says Scott Byrom, utilities expert at price comparison website moneysupermarket.com.
There are also fears the move will stifle competition between the main energy suppliers. Karen Darby, founder of price comparison website Simply Switch, believes a competitive market is created when consumers can switch energy suppliers freely. In other markets, such as mobile phones and broadband Internet services, contracts of 18 months and more have been introduced and this inhibits people's ability to find a better deal.
"While all consumers want to do their bit to help the environment, the main thing people want is value for money and not to feel they are tied into an uncompetitive tariff," says Darby.
The possibility of getting stuck with an unsuitable tariff is not good news for the two million UK consumers who are officially in debt to their supplier. Energy debt has increased by a third since 2004, and more than 5,000 people get disconnected each year. The majority of those in debt to their suppliers owe less than £100 - the sort of sum you could save in a year on a cheaper tariff.
"We recommend to consumers that it is worth checking you are on the best deal now as there are currently no barriers to switching," says Darby, warning that companies may soon start to restrict your ability to switch suppliers.
It appears Britons have got used to the benefits of shopping around for the best energy deals. More than 13 million households say they have switched suppliers at least once, saving a total of £1.7 billion, according to research company YouGov.
The main reason people gave for switching providers was high energy bills. This is not likely to change: energy costs are expected to rise again this year - after falling in the first half of 2007 - as a result of increasing oil prices throughout the summer. Others said they changed supplier because their customer service was not up to scratch.
While you still have the freedom to switch providers, it may be worth taking a look at your current deal to see whether the tariff you are on is the best you can find.
Dealing with debt
Ensure you are getting the best from your supplier. If appropriate move to dual fuel - where you get gas and electricity from the same supplier - and sign up to an online plan.
Keep on top of meter readings to ensure your account is billed accurately. If your last bill was estimated, call your supplier and give them a reading.
Avoid changing to a prepayment meter, if possible, as these can cost you more in the long run.
The Echo has teamed up with SimplySwitch to provide our readers with a free energy price check. To check you're getting a good price deal call 0800 011 1432 or log on to www.householdmoneysaver.com