British Gas feels heat on families left out in the cold: When the breadwinner walks out of a home, unpaid bills are often left behind. Paul Gosling reports on how the utilities try to collect their money

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The Independent Online
Although Ofgas has this week made searing criticisms of British Gas, the regulator has been attacked for allowing the utility to get away with allegedly unfair trading practices. Consumer advisers are concerned that British Gas is too willing to force deserted wives to pay outstanding bills, instead of chasing up absentee husbands.

The Ofgas annual report refers to a Sheffield woman whose husband left her in May last year with outstanding gas arrears of pounds 672.91. Although the account had been in her husband's name, the woman, on income support and with two children, was billed for the arrears. British Gas said she was liable and the onus was on her to take legal action against her husband if she wanted recompense.

After the woman complained to Ofgas, British Gas agreed to ask her for half the arrears, and to take action against her husband for the rest.

Antoinette Hoffland, who works for Paddington Law Centre and co-wrote the Fuel Rights Handbook, says that concessions arising from complaints are not enough.

'We want an active policy of chasing the deserting party. British Gas should see itself as no different from other creditors chasing bills, but it would rather just chase those left in the building, using the threat of disconnection. They should apportion liability where this is appropriate.

'In the event of a relationship breakdown - the classic case is of a man leaving behind his partner, on benefits and with children - it is almost always likely to be unfair; there is inbuilt inequity. It is pushing poor people further into poverty.'

Ofgas says that the problem lies with the wording of the 1986 Gas Act. Willie MacLeod, director of consumer affairs at Ofgas, explained: 'We have to work within the law. The legal advice to us is that anyone who is a legal occupier and who has control over use of gas is liable for the bills. We're stuck with that.

'We would dearly love to say to British Gas that it is unfair to chase a deserted wife. We have gone to them about this and they have agreed to be sensitive over this. If they are not being sensitive we would like to know about it, and we will even take action through the Department of Trade and Industry if necessary.'

A spokesman for British Gas said: 'We take all steps to handle all cases with sensitivity. A lot depends on the individual circumstances and our awareness of them.' He said British Gas would respect the wishes of the householders as to who was billed. 'It's not significant. It's not as relevant as who gains the benefit.'

The utility companies have a range of practices. BT bills one member of the household and takes action for arrears only against that person.

A spokesman explained: 'With telephone bills there could be conflicting instructions. For example: one person wanting itemised bills and another not wanting them, or a request for disconnection, or the barring of 0898 calls. So we want one person to take the decisions.

'You could argue that it would be better for us to have joint bills. We can be left picking up the pieces if one person leaves, and we have difficulty in chasing a bill. This is under review, and we are in discussion with the electricity and gas companies to see what they do.'

The approach of many of the electricity supply companies is to encourage customers to have joint bills. If there is only one person named on the bill the electricity companies, like British Gas, rely on the concept of 'beneficial use'.

A spokesman for London Electricity said: 'In law it is the person who has the benefit who has the liability.' He conceded that since the passing of the 1989 Electricity Act there had been no cases to confirm that the principle still held. London Electricity asks all adult residents who are to benefit from the supply to sign the connection agreement.

Both South Western and Eastern Electricity said they only fall back on beneficial use as a last resort, and try first to contact and demand payment from the person named on the bill.

A spokesman for the electricity supply watchdog, Offer, said: 'It is an important problem, and we are holding discussions to look at the various approaches to it. The legal position is not clear as there is no case law. The solution will be customer-focused, but if the electricity is used someone will have to pay for it.'

Ms Hoffland argues that as the electricity and gas Acts do not refer to beneficial use this can no longer be used to justify the billing of anyone who did not register for supply. Supported by the National Association of Citizen's Advice Bureaux and other advice workers, she is calling on the regulators to ensure that only registered customers are chased for arrears.

(Photograph omitted)

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