Energy costs hit the vulnerable


British Gas Logo LogoFaced with an unexplained £6,000 bill from British Gas, when Age UK asked me to talk to an APPG about my experience, I welcomed the chance.

APPGs (All Party Parliamentary Groups) consist of MPs and Peers from all political parties.  The one concerning Aging and Older People were meeting to discuss Fuel Poverty.

This one is Chaired by Baroness Altman, a delightful person who made me very welcome and kept a lively discussion moving on how fuel prices are impacting on older people.  The other eminent speakers were Chloe Wright from Age UK and Hayden Banks of National Energy Action – and looking on were two packed benches, plus Rae and Rhiannon and a team from Age UK looking after me!

Elderly people need heat to survive.  Older people stay at home longer and move around less, so easily get colder – sometimes dangerously quickly. Many have chronic medical conditions and have lost the muscles that keep them warm.

Patronising advice about “wear another sweater” only means more weight to carry around – but with fewer muscles to warm them, the elderly depend on artificial warmth.

We need electricity to light homes, run stairlifts, charge mobility scooters, operate alarm systems, etc.

My story

As an 84-year-old Polio survivor living alone, disabilities caught up with me after cancer.

With only one eye I can’t read meters, so in January 2018 I talked to nice Andrew in Centrica’s head office (they own  British Gas). He arranged for me to go on their Priority Register, so British Gas would read my meters.

I set up a Direct Debit (amount suggested by British Gas), and in December 2019 their statement said “You are in credit £63.45.”

The next statement from British Gas said I was massively in debt:  “Your new  balance ….is £6006.78″.

Since this shock, I have been fighting for an explanation. Nothing British Gas tells me makes sense, especially a letter they send giving pages of supposed meter readings (in tiny letters), and offering £30 compensation.

I thought this an insult.

The Financial Ombudsman got me a couple of thousand knocked off – but still no explanation.

A recent Ofgem report says I am not alone:  “some of the worst examples of poor practice included suppliers failing to read the meters of customers who could not do so themselves”.

British Gas’s Kate Collins sends me a 5-page email ending with “You are now free to resolve your complaint by other methods, such as through the civil courts.  This decision and its actions will then be not binding on British Gas and we consider the matter closed.”

Is British Gas above the law?

British Gas closes its email boxes, so the only way to contact them is by phone.  You hold on for fifty minutes until you are cut off;  then start the process all over again

Because of these long calls hanging on, I go over my free phone call allowance, so now pay excess phone charges each month.

Josh, from British Gas, visits to suggest I should have a Smart meter.  I  asked for a leaflet to study, and Josh said there wasn’t any. I explain I would be loathe to sign up without seeing what the meter dial looked like, to check if I could read it.

He offers to look at my bills to see if he could find out how the massive overcharge had come about, then tells me 4,000 electricity units had been overcharged.

A week later I open a letter from British Gas, expecting an apology or explanation.

Er – no. It says :

We’re about to apply for a warrant to enter your home

this is threatening, unhelpful, and adds more stress. I ask British Gas to send someone to my home to sort this out, but they refuse.  But they send a debt collector who wakes me up early one morning.  I send him away and tell him I don’t open my door to strange men when dressed in my dressing gown.

Charities report worries

Then Age UK asks me to appear before anAge UK logo APPG meeting to tell my story. They want someone like me to tell MPs what happens to us.  So I gather information from numerous charities, from the Polio Survivors Network to Jo Cole of the Tees Valley neurological charity;  all express concern.

Macmillan say those with cancer need to keep warm; cancer means four out of five people are £570 a month worse off – and this was before the cost of living crisis started to kick in.

Jo asks “what good is an increase in benefits + pensions in April, when people have already had to cover the shortfall denied in 2021? Ask the APPG what they would consider a reasonable excess death rate this winter due to fuel poverty?” 

Damian Bailey , Wolfson Research Fellow, expresses “concerns relate to understanding…the impact of sitting for hours on end passively in a chair in elderly folk who cannot afford to heat their homes over winter. Chronic exposure to cold is a vascular risk factor”.

Other Disability organisations ask variations of ‘how many ‘excess deaths’ are going to happen this winter, due to people being afraid to heat their homes?’

Jess, my ambulance driver, echoes concerns. .  She takes regulars for renal dialysis, chemotherapy  and radiotherapy – people who need warmth to survive.

She and her colleagues in South Central Ambulance Service are increasingly concerned how cold patients’ homes are when they go in to collect them.  She says it is easy to see elderly patients are getting frailer and their health deteriorating.

Getting help

Advising us to ask charities for help is not on – we are a generation that fund-raises for charities, not one that asks others for help.  I did try the Ombudsman and Citizens Advice Bureau, but as British Gas had knocked something off my bill, that let the company off the hook.

However, one charity that was extremely supportive was the National Energy Foundation.  Beata Shaheen came to see me and took an enormous amount of time going through all the paperwork, commenting that it must have been extremely stressful for me.

After her supportive visit I think that I am going to have to get a good solicitor to take up my case – but why should I have to pay for this, when the problem seems to have been caused by British Gas not reading my meters correctly?

In the meantime I now think of costs as how many days of food they represent.  I won’t be buying a new coat this winter;  I wanted a new lipstick to give me confidence to face the APPG; it will cost the equivalent of three days’ food. So it’s a no-no.

Will I go to Prison?

Jail cartoon Vector Art Stock Images | DepositphotosI worry constantly about going to jail for non-payment of my bill.  Jess picks me up to go to hospital;  as she used to work in the prison service,  I ask her what to expect. I find out that at 84, with all my medical conditions, I will probably be in the prison hospital wing.  And I won’t have to pay for heating, lighting or food!

British Gas sends me an estimate for fuel consumption next year, saying for my one-bed property, my bill will be £5,500.  That’s half my Pension.

What could be done

Could MPs head a non-Political group to sort out what can be done?

Talking to a top oil guru, on his way between Orkney and Houston, he reports there is a lot that could be done, but so many initiatives have vested interests – it needs an impartial body to sort out what is best for everyone.

We are grateful for government hand-outs, but know these aren’t going to cover all costs.  And  the 10 % pension increase, starting in April, won’t go far in paying fuel bills.

As Ofgem said, some of the worst examples of poor practice included suppliers failing to read the meters of customers who could not do so themselves, British Gas tells me their meter reader was unable to gain access.  Strange – being disabled I am here all the time, and surely if someone was unable to gain access, that should flag up an alert? I could have been dead for a couple of years with no one the wiser.

So could MPs do something to ensure all suppliers abide by a code for meter reading? And if a meter reader can’t gain access, this is flagged up in case the client has had an accident

Many elderly people live in old buildings that are badly insulated and draughty.  I had a surveyor in to see about insulation, but as soon as he heard it was a listed building he said nothing could be done.  Could the APPG get local authorities to review restrictions on these buildings?

The system for charging for fuel needs to change and be easier to understand.  Why penalize us for using less?

Three simple suggestions :

  1.  Meter readers to flag up an alert if they don’t get a response
  2. Review restrictions on old and listed buildings 
  3. Fuel companies must give a clear explanation if a  customer is faced with unexpected charges. And take the consequences if at fault.