Update 15 Mar 2016: The Ofgem investigation into MoneySuperMarket was closed today, with no action taken.
Ofgem, the energy regulator, has asked for information from the MoneySuperMarket group (which MoneySavingExpert is a part of) by sending what's called a Section 26 notice.
I wanted to just explain to you briefly what this actually means, and how it works, as, certainly judging by The Sun piece today by its former editor Kelvin MacKenzie, there is widespread ignorance.
- What is the investigation about? Here's the info from the Ofgem website.
"Ofgem has opened an investigation into whether two or more companies providing a supporting service for the energy industry have breached competition law. Ofgem's investigation includes whether two or more parties have shared information on the commission rates they charge to energy suppliers.
"For the avoidance of doubt, this investigation does not affect consumers' ability to use switching sites to get the best energy deal. The fact that we have opened this investigation does not mean there has been a breach of competition law."
- What exactly is Ofgem looking for? I don't know, any more than anyone else who has read the info above, ie, "have two or more parties shared information on commission rates they charge to energy suppliers?"
Section 26s don't charge anybody with doing anything, in essence they are info fishing exercises to see what's going on, and if anything it thinks is wrong has been done.
It is just a big demand for a mass of documents and data – so Ofgem can collect evidence. Only it knows exactly what it's looking for – then it can decide whether anything has been done wrong. As it states,"the fact that we have opened this investigation does not mean there has been a breach of competition law".
- Who else is involved? The only firms that are public about this are MoneySuperMarket (it put out in this somewhat legalese statement to the stock market last week) and Uswitch in April (as part of the statement when it was being acquired by Zoopla).
No newspapers decided to cover this when Uswitch commented, but for some reason the MoneySuperMarket statement took off like wild fire. I've no clue whether any other firms are being looked at, different companies have different stock market disclosure requirements.
- Why haven't I been talking about it? Where to start? There are so many reasons. Most importantly, for those that are part of the organisations on whom the notice is served, as I am….
A Section 26 notice comes with possible criminal sanctions for divulging any information about it, without permission, to anyone, including to the media.
I've had to have this statement carefully lawyered just to check it's not a breach.
Yet of course, as you can see above, I don't actually know enough about it to shed much light on it – other than this explanatory piece, that is.
Of course in practical terms I'm not engaged in any commission negotiations of this type and my role (my choice and MoneySuperMarket's) is strictly about MoneySavingExpert.com, not the group as a whole. I focus and continue to do so on what we write, and produce. Within that of course we have a legally binding Editorial Code that ensures we put the consumer first regardless of financial consideration – and I believe we do that.
So I hope you now understand what's going on. As much as I do anyway.
This is of course a very frustrating situation to be in. It presents an open door to people such as Mr MacKenzie to come and have a kick at me in his "Silence doesn't add up" piece.
He gets to use easy shortcuts to have a go, such as noting that in last week's Watchdog "he didn't talk about the biggest consumer story of the day – that the energy regulator Ofgem was investigating if MoneySuperMarket.com was party to a market–rigging scheme".
Certainly I accept it's a story – though I'd categorise it in business news not consumer news.
However I was there to talk about ‘life hacks' and TV rules frustratingly prevent me ever talking about the website in my work as a commentator (unless I'm there specifically to represent it in a role prearranged) – I wish they didn't, I'd be delighted to take the rough with the smooth.
Mr McKenzie then continues: "So I will be looking forward to Mr Lewis pitching back up on Watchdog next week to lift the lid on the goings on in his company. It would certainly be odd if for the first time in his life he had nothing to say."
"And if he isn't prepared to defend his business in public, then TV producers should not book him for his money advice until he is."
Well it is up to a programme editor not me to decide the subject, and frankly at the moment, as you can read above I doubt it'd make that interesting an interview and have nothing to ‘lift the lid' on.
I've no idea if MacKenzie actually researched what a Section 26 notice is and the rules about it, before making statements like this.
However let me say I've always been proud to defend my record and activities, and when people have come to try and knock me, I face it straight on. So when I actually know if this is something or nothing, and am legally allowed to, I won't shy away from it.