Consumer rights: 'Unhelpful restaurant staff refused to take my unregistered gift card'

Café Rouge customer is left with a nasty taste over unusable gift...a pregnant health care worker is worried about debts and maternity pay

Q. I was delighted to receive a Cafe Rouge gift card for Christmas. On 27 January I tried to use it but was told by the staff at my local branch that I would need to register it online or I wouldn't be able to use it that evening. This came as a surprise. I've never heard of registering a gift card before.

I asked if the staff could assist me in registering it and was abruptly told to use my mobile. Unfortunately my mobile doesn't connect with the internet. The waiter tried to assist by using his phone but was unable to access the page and the result was I couldn't use my card. He also mentioned another customer the previous week having the same problem.

I did try when I received the card to look at the small print. However, I found it very hard to read as the print is so small.

I would like to know why the chain insists on the recipient registering the card; how they can assume everyone has easy access to the internet; why, when money has been spent the card can be refused; and why the print on the card is so hard to read – how would anyone with eyesight difficulties cope?

PH

A. Restaurants and any other organisations set all sorts of terms and conditions for the use of their gift cards and vouchers. There is nothing to stop any retailer doing this as long as they aren't creating an unfair contract.

Having to register a gift card isn't unusual. Most of the gift cards I've received in the past few years have had to be registered. Registering allows you to check to see how much money is left on your card if you don't spend it all at once, but in reality firms are hoping to get information from you that they can use in the future to promote themselves and their wares.

The person who bought the card must have accepted the terms and conditions before buying your gift. It is also probably all there in the small print...although I agree that most small print is too small!

I've looked at the Café Rouge website and the fact that the card has to be registered is fairly clear.

It says: "Once activated the value on your...gift card can be used as full or part payment at any... restaurant in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."

The problem is that the buyer knew the terms and conditions but you didn't. I think the only thing you can do is to write saying that you are disappointed with the size of the small print and the unhelpful attitude of the first employee you spoke to. Point out that you were inconvenienced and your evening was spoiled and ask for a free meal next time you visit.

Q. I'm 25 and have £12,000 in unsecured debts. I am thinking about applying for a debt relief order (DRO). I have no income available to pay off the debts.

I am pregnant but not entitled to maternity leave as I'd just changed jobs and haven't been there long enough. I work as a health care assistant doing bank shifts (agency). There is usually work available but I'm not sure what's going to happen after the baby is born in March as I will be a single parent.

I know my financial situation will improve eventually and I would like to buy my first home by the time I'm 30. Would a DRO affect my chances of a mortgage? If so would it be better to pay off my debts over time as my income increases?

NI

A. Your situation is rather uncertain, but my immediate concern is about your maternity rights.

If you're pregnant or have a new baby but don't qualify for statutory maternity pay (SMP) from any employer, you may be able to claim maternity allowance (MA) through Jobcentre Plus. Make an appointment as soon as possible to check. If you don't qualify for SMP or MA, you may be able to get employment and support allowance (ESA) instead. You may also be entitled to help with rent and council tax. Then you will know what income you will have and can work out what to do about your debts.

You say the debts are unsecured, so you won't lose your home or other goods while you can't make your repayments. If you are behind with your bills though, such as gas and electricity, you need to work out a repayment plan with the utility companies to avoid being cut off.

For instance, if you have some money to make regular, small payments to your creditors, they may agree to accept them and freeze interest on your debts until your income increases. That would put things on hold until you are in a position to know what you'll be earning in future.

Opting for a DRO isn't without its drawbacks.

Maggie Delauncey, who runs the money advice programme at Camden Citizens Advice Bureau, says: "It's important for people to understand the gravity of applying for a DRO or applying to be made bankrupt. Both options can provide a really positive solution in some debt situations but they can also have a lifelong effect."

If you're worried you'll have problems dealing with your creditors make an appointment to see an adviser at your nearest CAB or other advice agency or call National Debtline on 0800 808 4000.

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

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