Sainsbury's Energy Hit By Mis-Selling Scandal
British Gas is being forced to compensate thousands of customers for providing inaccurate savings estimates in the latest mis-selling episode to blight the utility sector.
Sky News has learnt that the UK's biggest energy provider, which is part of the FTSE-100 group Centrica, is paying out around £500,000 to approximately 4,300 people who signed up to Sainsbury's Energy and British Gas tariffs between February 2011 and March 2013.
Insiders said on Tuesday that British Gas had overstated the potential savings for consumers by providing inaccurate quotes for the following year's gas and electricity bills.
Details of the compensation package are understood to have been agreed with Ofgem, the industry regulator, and are expected to be confirmed in a public statement in the coming days.
A source said that British Gas had notified Ofgem of the mistake itself, and that the watchdog was satisfied with the proposed remedy, which has seen customers' accounts credited with average repayments of around £130.
The news comes days after the gas and electricity sector was referred by Ofgem to the Competition and Markets Authority for a full investigation.
The inquiry, which came in the wake of intense pressure from Ed Davey, the energy and climate change secretary, and Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, is unlikely to be completed until towards the end of next year.
Mr Miliband has sought to depict rising household energy bills as a central theme of the "cost of living crisis" that is likely to form the defining narrative of Labour's General Election campaign.
Sainsbury's Energy has operated in partnership with British Gas for several years, and has been in trouble with regulators before.
In 2012, dozens of British Gas employees were suspended for reportedly trying to persuade Sainsbury's customers to sign up to more expensive energy tariffs through an aggressive sales push inside its stores.
The supermarket chain ceased selling energy policies through British Gas staff in its stores last year, but retains a relationship with the Centrica subsidiary.
The latest payout comes after a series of fines and compensation packages imposed upon the major utilities.
In April, British Gas was fined £5.6m for unfairly blocking business customers from switching to rivals.
Npower, EDF Energy and Scottish Power, which have German, French and Spanish owners respectively, have also been hit by stiff penalties for mis-selling or misleading customers.
British Gas is also expected to face a record fine from Ofgem for failing to meet targets set under a household insulation scheme called Cert, which was funded from levies on consumers' bills.
Sources said that that penalty, which may not be finalised for several months, could run to tens of millions of pounds.
EnergyUK, the industry lobbying group, has responded to the string of scandals by pledging to reduce the time it takes for customers to switch providers.
Ofgem said, however, that growing consumer mistrust of the Big Six gas and electricity providers was a factor in its decision to refer the industry for a full competition probe.
British Gas, Sainsbury's and Ofgem all declined to comment on Tuesday.