Questions Of Cash: Thames Water's leaky system for allowances

Q. My mother's house had a water leak, which was fixed in April last year. In January this year, my father died. On 5 February, my mother phoned her water supplier, Thames Water, to change the direct debit to her account. She was dealt with unsympathetically and told she must pay £50 a month for an outstanding bill. She believed this problem had been resolved by my late father. After my mother was upset by the call I phoned Thames Water, but was told it could not talk to me because of the Data Protection Act. But I was promised that a "leak allowance form" would be sent to my mother, which she would complete and return with a letter authorising me to handle the account. The form never arrived. Instead, she received a distressing phone call asking when she could pay the outstanding bill. She told the operative that she could not deal with this and gave my name and number authorising me to sort this mess out. On 9 March, I phoned Thames Water again and it said I could now deal with the problem, but that it did not send out "leak allowance forms". I phoned again on 23 March and was told that it does send out "leak allowance forms". I next phoned on 6 April and was told it could not discuss the problem with me for data protection reasons: however, eventually it was prepared to discuss some information with me. Then, on April 18, my mother received a payment plan, for her to pay £276 a month. My mother is very distressed. MA, Stroud.

A. After you wrote to Questions of Cash – and despite a promise to us by Thames Water that the matter would be dealt with urgently – your mother received a letter demanding immediate payment of £1,297.24. You say that prior to the leak, your parents' water bills were very small. The bill only became large when the leak appeared.

This fact is not disputed by Thames Water. But it says it only has responsibility for leaks in supply pipes leading to a property: leaks inside the property are the responsibility of the householder. Where there is a leak in a metered supply pipe which a householder could not be expected to be aware of, Thames Water will normally provide a "leak allowance". Where wastage is caused by a faulty ball valve in a toilet cistern or water tank, the customer is expected to be aware of this and will not normally receive a leak allowance.

In the case of your parent's home, it appears that the leak occurred in a supply pipe under their front garden, which they might not be expected to be aware of. It is also obvious that Thames Water did not treat your mother with the sensitivity it should have done. It says that "although the charges... are correct, we are pleased to make an exception because of the extremely difficult circumstances [your mother] has had to endure". It is therefore waiving £1,366.13 of charges on your mother's account, which should fully cover the disputed element of the bill.

Q. On 31 December I ordered some house moving boxes from Removal Supply, via its website. These never arrived, but a payment of £46 was taken from my debit card. I was unable to get through on the phone line and my emails were not answered. I contacted an agency, which informed me that the business was long since insolvent. RG, Crawley.

A. You paid by an HSBC Maestro card, which has no chargeback facility. We have therefore not been able to obtain a refund. Given that the business is no longer trading, pursuing a legal action appears impractical. It is disturbing that customers' money is still being collected and that the website continues to function – we checked and it was still operational, though the phone number no longer works. HSBC says that the responsibility for closing down the transactional facilities lies with Removal Supply's bank – and that the bank is likely to do this when it receives chargeback requests for purchases made with credit cards and Visa debit cards. HSBC makes the point that while consumers want traders to lose their card transaction facilities when they become unlikely to fulfil an order, HSBC itself was criticised when it did this with the Wrapit business for allegedly hastening its closure.

Q. I moved my phone and broadband account to the Post Office in December 2007 and arranged to pay by direct debit. The first payment failed, but I was assured that subsequent payments would work. Since then I have not received bills and have not made payments. I was promised in March this year that the direct debit would at last be processed, but still it has not happened. I dread having my service cut off through no fault of mine. NL, Bristol.

A Several readers have contacted us, concerned about the failure of payment arrangements to the Post Office for phone services. The Post Office tells us that it had difficulties in setting-up your direct debit mandate. It has now cleared your account to zero and has, it says, correctly set-up your direct debit mandate and will correctly collect your due payments in future. But it has also provided you with the contact details of a manager, in case you have further problems.

Q. In 2006 I opened a broadband account with Tiscali. In March last year I moved, telling Tiscali I wanted to transfer my Tiscali account. I kept receiving phone calls from Tiscali asking for a previous tenant. I then inadvertently opened a letter from Tiscali for this previous tenant, warning that it would disconnect her service for non-payment. A few days later my service was disconnected. Tiscali keeps promising it will reconnect my service, but it did not do so. I cancelled my direct debit and moved to a different supplier. I then received a letter from a debt collector demanding £43.94 and have now had a notice of legal proceedings. JS, Bury St Edmonds.

A. We have lots of complaints about Tiscali. Tiscali promises it has now sorted this out. It has cleared your account and is sending you £50 compensation for your loss of service and its failure to resolve the problems properly. Tiscali says the difficulties were caused by the previous tenant failing to pay her bill and weaknesses in "industry-wide processes" on the cancellation and migration of accounts, which have now been improved.

Questions of Cash cannot give individual advice. But if you have a financial dilemma, we'll do our best to help. Please email us at:

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