CRANE ON THE CASE: I moved out of my damp home as it was uninhabitable: Can British Gas really charge me £5k in energy bills?
I owned a home which I had to leave at the end of 2015 due to water ingress which made it uninhabitable.
In 2020, I went back to the property to find an electric bill from British Gas for more than £2,000, even though I hadn’t been living there.
I contacted British Gas at this time and they said they would reduce it to £800, but I didn’t feel this was fair so I complained to the Ombudsman – but it sided with British Gas.
Big bill: This reader found a £2,000 electricity and gas bill when she returned to her home, which was previously laying empty, after five years (stock image)
By June 2021 my bill had increased again to almost £5,000 due to demands for current and backdated payments. Now my credit file is being affected.
How was British Gas able to say I was using electricity when I wasn’t living there?
It says it has meter readings, but I didn’t give them access to the home. And if my bill was mounting up so much, why was the supply never cut off? Anonymous, via email
Helen Crane, This is Money, replies: Having to leave your home is a terrible situation and discovering payment demands for thousands must have been a huge shock.
I contacted British Gas to find out what was going on and disappointingly it took several months for it to provide me with a response – so I have great sympathy with customers who face a battle to work out what is going on with their bills.
Ultimately, it wasn’t able to comment on your case directly as you are now in legal proceedings.
However, I do want to attempt to explain what the rules are on energy bills for empty homes.
This is something I receive plenty of emails about and the information might help others who find themselves in the same boat.
CRANE ON THE CASE
Our weekly column sees This is Money consumer expert Helen Crane tackle reader problems and shine the light on companies doing both good and bad.
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Broadly, energy bills are made up of two elements: the cost of the energy used, and ‘standing charges’ which go towards the cost of administrating customers’ accounts.
Property owners are still liable to pay the standing charges, even if no energy is being used and no one is living in the home.
Today’s maximum daily standing charge rates are 45p for electricity and 27p for gas. So someone paying standing charges today could owe their energy firm £1,315 for five years.
And that is before using any electricity. You don’t say whether you left anything plugged in when you left your home, but if you did then appliances can use energy even when they were turned off.
But how would British Gas know how much energy you were using? When energy firms don’t receive meter readings, they will normally use estimates, based on your previous usage.
This could have been why you were charged for energy that you say you did not use, when you weren’t living in the home.
The supplier could have assumed you were still there and using the level of power you previously did, and charged you accordingly.
You don’t say whether your home was still accessible during the five years you weren’t there, but if it was then a good idea would have been to go in and take periodic meter readings to show that your usage had gone down – although I appreciate that would not have been high on your agenda when worrying about where you were going to live.
Snowballing: After the initial bill, she saw her charge from British Gas rise to more than £5,000
The property now has new occupiers, and British Gas would likely have obtained meter readings when they moved in – even if only to give them final readings before they moved to another supplier.
This would effectively give it a final figure for the usage during the period you owned the property, and could explain why it is refusing to budge on the amount charged to you.
In extreme cases, if you don’t come to an agreement with your supplier to pay off your debt, they can apply to a court for a warrant to enter your home to look at or change the meter or disconnect your supply.
British Gas wouldn’t tell me whether that happened in your case, but it is an option that is open to energy firms when customers have long-standing debt.
You are now in a difficult situation, as you face court proceedings which could result in you being issued with a County Court Judgment and ordered to pay off this large bill.
This isn’t a good situation to be in for several reasons. First, it will damage your credit history and, unless it is paid within a month, it will stay on your credit file for six years – making it more difficult and expensive to borrow money.
And if you don’t stick to the payments, British Gas would be allowed to use bailiffs or take money out of your wages to recover the money.
However, it may still be possible for you to come to an agreement with British Gas before that happens.
In situations such as this customers are able to make a sensible ‘offer’ of payment, which could be a figure that – albeit lower than the total charge – the supplier is willing to accept in order to close the matter.
You could also try to agree a payment plan, so that you pay the debt off over time rather than in one go.
This appears to be what happened initially when British Gas offered to reduce your bill from £2,000 to £800, though you declined the offer at that time as you still believed the charges to be incorrect.
To get impartial advice and help on debt, you could try contacting a debt charity such as Stepchange or National Debtline.
I am very sorry that you have found yourself in this situation. It wasn’t your fault that your home developed severe damp and became impossible to live in.
But as I have explained – and unfortunately for you – it is possible to rack up fairly sizeable bills, even when a property is unoccupied.
Also, if anyone reading this finds themselves in a similar situation, it is advisable to contact your energy firm as soon as realistically possible to potentially cut off the supply.
I hope that you are able to find a way to pay what you owe to British Gas and move on from this episode.
Parking protest: Local residents in Lichfield got parking fines they felt they didn’t deserve
Hit and miss: This week’s naughty and nice list
Every week, I look at the companies who have fallen short when it comes to customer service, and those who have gone above and beyond.
Hit: A few months ago, I reported on a reader, Helen, who said she had been wrongly issued multiple PCN notices for parking in her local shopping centre in Lichfield while she ran a weekly choir group.
Pre-pandemic she had always paid £2 cash into the machine, got a ticket and had no issues – but when she returned post-lockdown it had been replaced by new ticketless machine, run by Excel Parking Services.
She carried on paying her £2, as well as entering her car registration – but then the PCN notices started coming. At the time of writing she had been issued three, totalling £180.
She appealed to Excel without success, but I found it hard to believe that she apparently became a fare dodger at the same time the meter changed hands. I assumed it must have been a technical error.
When I got in touch, though, Excel stuck to its guns and said it had no record of her payments or her registration being entered. The fines stood, and the reader later told me she was on the verge of cancelling her choir because of it.
After I wrote the story, reams of residents got in touch to say that they had experienced the same issues.
The local community in Lichfield set up a group on Facebook to share their experiences – which currently has almost 500 members – and lobbied the shopping centre management and local council to get the issue sorted.
So I was delighted to read reports this week that the shopping centre has heeded these calls and decided to change its car parking provider.
The local MP, Michael Fabricant, told Lichfield Live he ‘had never before had to deal with a company that has so little interest in engaging with genuine concerns of the customers it is meant to serve.’
It just goes to show that persistence really can drive change.
Miss: With flight chaos still ongoing in airports across the UK, plenty of passengers will unfortunately be having to claim compensation and refunds for journeys delayed or cancelled.
If the experience of a reader who wrote to me recently is anything to go by, some may face trouble ahead when it comes to claiming that money back – especially if they booked via an agent.
Reader Mark got in touch to tell me he was struggling to get back part of the money for a trip he and his family were initially due to take back in September 2020.
He booked four return business class flights from London Heathrow to Shanghai – where he was relocating for work – at a cost of just over £17,000, paying a £1,000 deposit with a credit card and the balance with a debit card.
When his family arrived at London Heathrow to board the flight, they were refused boarding due to a mix-up with the timing of their Covid tests. The rules had changed from 48 hours before, to 96 hours before, in the preceding days and he had not been informed by the airline.
Airport annoyance: The reader and his family couldn’t take their scheduled flight – and getting the last part of the refund they believed they were owed proved challenging
He claimed the airline said he would receive a refund in full as this was not his fault – but as he booked via an agent, The Flights Guru, it would need to be done via them.
When customers book flights directly in the EU through an airline, they will be protected under EU regulation, EU261, which says if a flight is cancelled, they are entitled to a full refund.
However, when customers book through a travel agent, their contract is with the agent and not directly with the airline and instead, the agent has a contract with the carrier.
As he still needed to travel to China, Mark immediately contacted TFG to organise alternative flights. When he found some the next day with another carrier, he says The Flights Guru told him it couldn’t change his tickets as it had not yet established whether it would receive a full refund.
Mark said he spent nine days in a hotel at Heathrow trying and failing to get replacement flights with TFG, but eventually booked flights with another travel agent, costing another £16,000.
Once arrived he chased TFG, but a refund was never processed. Two months after the scheduled flight, and getting frustrated, he did a chargeback on his debit card and received the debit card element of the flight cost back within a few weeks.
Rule change: Covid test protocols changed just before they took the flight, which led to Mark’s family being unable to travel
He has contacted TFG many times to ask them to refund the outstanding £1,000, but has said the requests were ignored. He is unable to do a chargeback on that element as the time limit has now passed.
When I contacted TFG, it said it did not owe him anything. It said it was clear from the outset that the refund could take up to 12 weeks, and that he should not have done the chargeback.
With regard to the delay, the staff member who got back to me also said: ‘I don’t beleive [sic] that the client spent 9 days at Heathrow’.
But what about the outstanding £1,000? Unfortunately, TFG states in its terms and conditions that ‘In case of refunds, Flights Guru provides a full refund of money paid only when the money is received from the relevant supplier.’
That means it won’t refund customers until the airlines it has booked flights with pays it back. Frustratingly, this is common among third-party travel agents.
It also said that it subtracts an ‘admin fee’ when it successfully gets a refund, meaning the customer will get less back then they originally paid.
The agent said that, when it did eventually get the refund from the airline, it was charged £1,660 in admin fees by the airline and another ‘supplier,’ which would have been deducted from the refund given to Mark had he not done the chargeback.
A spokesperson said: ‘We do not owe [Mark] any money on this booking, as he has already had back through the chargeback more than he was entitled to due to the cancellation fees charged.’
The agent may have been following its own rules – but whether these rules are fair on customers is another matter.
What’s more, it is disappointing that Mark had to contact me to get a proper answer about why his £1,000 was not being refunded – nearly two years after the scheduled flight.