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.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    BC2

    £50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

    Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

    £300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

    (Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

    Finance Officer

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education are seeking a Fi...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice