United Utilities’s unjust debt black mark adds to innocent flood victim’s misery

Martin Lewis explains how to reduce your energy bills

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It demanded £262.44 payment for months of charges up to February this year, even though the family had been evacuated back in August after Burrow Beck near their home in Lancaster overflowed, leaving their housing association home uninhabitable. Worse still the supplier’s pursuit of Colin had appalling repercussions for him, even though he had never had any dealings with it as Margaret had been the account holder and paid the bills.

++ If you’ve been affected by this issue or feel you’ve been a victim of injustice, please contact consumer champion Maisha Frost on [email protected] ++

Despite having to cope with all the shock and pressure of clearing the damage and moving into emergency accommodation, the 78-year-old had made sure she settled up all outstanding charges, something the company confirmed.

Mother and son claim they told the company numerous times that he had never been a customer. But these fell on deaf ears as Colin, a one-man-band builder, found out when he got a legal action threat and then, when he went to buy some supplies for a new job, was refused because of a black mark on his previously good credit record.

“I found out United Utilities had done it. I lost the job and several others, the impact has been crippling on me trying to earn a living, especially when mum and I are trying to get back on our feet,” he told Crusader when asking for our help to get them justice and the damaging stain removed. 

After the flood, which drew a lot of local criticism concerning poor  defences in the area, Margaret was moved to a hotel and then temporary address while Colin stayed nearby with a friend before they were rehoused by Lancaster Council early this year. 

“We watched our belongings float away, even my son’s bike. Our documents were just a sodden mess. I was so shocked I could barely remember my own name sometimes,” recalls Margaret. 

“We cleared up what we could within a week and handed in the key. I made sure all bills were paid and everyone knew we had moved. I made the calls mostly –  it was easier for me. It would have been really difficult to write any letter.”

Colin claims he was told by United Utilities it had got his name from the electoral roll. “But it’s madness to accuse me of having been there like a squatter using the water supply, the place was a wreck and the disaster was well known had they checked. Customer services were very rude though when I tried to explain. There was no understanding, just pay up or else. It was the last thing I needed.”

With all he had to contend with Colin was understandably unhappy too when he was asked to supply proof he had been living elsewhere. “I was not given any evidence as to why they were accusing me. It can’t be right to treat people like that. By that measure anyone a company feels like taking down is fair game,” he protested.

Crusader made United Utilities aware about what we considered was atrocious treatment of consumers dragged into an unequal struggle to defend themselves. 

It responded: “We are very sorry for any worry and stress this matter has caused. We had been in dialogue with the family, but unfortunately we didn’t receive the relevant documents required to prove the property was not being occupied.  

“This resulted in Mr Gibson receiving a water bill in his name.  Given the large volume of customers moving out of properties we have processes in place to identify new occupiers to make sure that all customers’ bills are fair. 

“The Housing Association has now confirmed that this property was unoccupied during this period and the account has been closed and all negative data has been removed. 

“We will be contacting the family to ensure they are satisfied with the outcome.” 

We hope that means a decent goodwill gesture too, not some paltry sum. We intend to follow up. 

Billing and charges complaints rise as water watchdog launches new checker for consumers 

The latest report from watchdog the Consumer Council for Water (CCW) reveals two-thirds of complaints made by household customers to water companies related to issues with bills, charges and the way they recovered debt. 

Some of the issues stemmed from the challenges posed by Covid-19 as water companies adapted to new ways of working and customers using more water at home during lockdown periods, says the CCW. 

It believes that customers have a right to expect clear and accurate water bills and be treated with empathy by water companies if they slip into debt. 

It explained: “We have already provided best practice guidance to water companies on how to reduce these types of dispute. This includes steps such as contacting customers before they receive much higher than usual bills to help them understand why their water use might have increased.

“Our recent independent review of water affordability also emphasised the need for companies to make their communication with customers more accessible and develop a better understanding of individuals’ needs.” 

CCW and regulator Ofwat have also begun work with the industry to improve the way water companies handle complaints. This includes speeding up response times, sharing good practice, making better use of data and improving companies’ understanding of the experiences and needs of more vulnerable customers.

CCW has just launched Water Mark, a new page on its website where customers can see how their water company ranks on everything from customers’ views on overall service and value for money to leakage levels and sewer flooding.

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