Consumer Rights: A helping hand foiled by 'data protection'

Why a utility firm blocked an effort to assist a sick relative ... The curse of being 'blacklisted' for credit ... The pursuit of compensation for a cancelled flight

My elderly aunt has been taken ill and is likely to spend the next few months in hospital. I am her next of kin but do not have power of attorney, and I have been trying to ensure her utility providers understand the situation and do not chase her for payment in the short term.

However, I keep rubbing up against the Data Protection Act. For example, Thames Water initially refused to deal with me at all, saying that because of "data protection" it could only deal with the account holder (even though I explained she was unconscious in hospital). Does the Act really forbid people from sorting out bills on behalf of someone else?

MW,

London



No. And this is ridiculous as you were trying to give information to Thames Water rather than extract information about your aunt. Data protection regulation is supposed to work in the consumer's favour, but seldom does so. More often than not, it appears to be used by retailers and utility providers as an excuse for inaction. That said, Thames Water has now apologised, admitted it was at fault and is dealing with you on behalf of your aunt.

Georgina Godfray, in-house lawyer for consumer group Which?, says: "Companies often interpret the general principles of the Act to read that they cannot disclose any personal details about an account holder to another person. This is because of the obvious risks of fraud. However, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has given guidance on the subject as there are clearly instances, like this one, where it is not so clear-cut. The ICO asks for companies to show common sense in such cases."

Providers can still take precautions, checking, for instance, that the person who claims to represent the account holder knows a sufficient amount about their account details or personal details. In your case, you were clearly in possession of all the relevant data, and "common sense" has been sadly lacking.



***

We keep getting mail for other people at our home. We send the letters back to the senders, saying there are no such people at the address, but this has proved completely ineffective in stopping the mail.

Until recently this was just an inconvenience, but two weeks ago we went to apply for a mobile phone and the retailer refused to give us an account, saying the address was blacklisted. How could it be so? And how do I go about getting my property off that list?

LP,

Tewkesbury



Just as "data protection" has become a catch-all reason to be unhelpful, this retailer is hiding behind the myth of blacklisting to stop you getting a mobile phone.

James Jones, consumer education manager at credit reference agency Experian, says: "The phone retailer gave you woeful advice. When you apply for credit, lenders can only look at someone else's credit report if you share a financial link. You might be linked to your partner or another family member – if, for example, you have taken out a loan together – but you won't be linked to anyone else recorded at your address, past or present. As a result, addresses can't be blacklisted. There really is no such thing."

Mr Jones adds that obtaining a copy of your credit report should either put your mind at rest that it was the retailer's mistake, or help you work out the real reason for the refusal. He adds: "Many lenders have tightened up their criteria in recent months, and if you don't fit the type of customer they're after, they may refuse your application even if your record is squeaky clean."

You can get a copy of the report, for a couple of pounds, from Experian, Equifax or Callcredit.



***

I bought a return ticket to New Zealand through Southall Travel. I was due to fly with Virgin to Shanghai and Air China to Auckland, and the same on the way back.

A month before I was due to fly, Southall Travel called to say Air China had unexpectedly cancelled all its flights between Auckland and Shanghai. I asked it to pursue other options but after checking with different airlines, it said this was impossible. I also called the airlines directly but they didn't want to speak to me as the ticket was bought through an agency. Southall Travel said the only solution it had for me was to get a full refund from Air China, for which I'm still waiting.

Buying another flight at short notice and close to Christmas was very hard, but eventually I got a return with Emirates for £1,200. My original ticket was £800 and I told Southall Travel I wanted it to pay the £400 difference. It refused, saying the fault was Air China's.

Who does have responsibility here? Should the agency not offer an alternative route?

EE,

High Wycombe

You have three potential targets: the airline, the travel agent and the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta). EU regulations state that cancellation, other than in "exceptional circumstances", is the airline's responsibility. However, as the cancellation occurred outside the EU, these rules are unlikely to apply. Ingrid Gubbay, consumer law consultant at solicitor Cohen Milstein, says: "In this situation the Montreal Convention is the only international agreement that applies, and it has no specific language which allows for compensation when flights are cancelled. This does not mean you could not refer to it in a letter to Air China, because increasingly the convention is including more passenger rights. Reimbursement would depend upon the Air China policy for cancelled flights, which should appear on your ticket."

In practice, given that the change in arrangements came 27 days before your flight, the airline is unlikely to accept any obligation to compensate you for the £400 difference.

When I talked to Southall Travel's head of customer services, he reiterated that the company could only supply flights that were available and did not feel obliged to offer any compensation. That said, the group has hurried along the refund from Air China, which should now be in your bank account.

Southall Travel is a member of Abta and so is bound by its code of practice. Abta should be prepared to step in where an agent is unable to supply the flights booked, so if this happens again, that may be your best course of action.

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