Questions of Cash: Unwanted shock when a power bill for £1200 arrived


Q. First Utility supplies our gas and electricity, and we pay by monthly direct debit. The company did not send us a bill in May and no direct debit was taken from our bank account.

In June, it took two payments, for £126.04 and £1217.10. The huge scale of the second payment came out of the blue and meant we had to move some of our savings urgently to cover it. I rang First Utility in mid-June to query why it had taken such a large amount. I was told that a new meter had been installed, which is not true, and that this was the amount due.

I tried to discuss some of the inconsistencies in the billing but the person on the end of the line could not understand and advised me to ring back that evening or send an email. I produced a spreadsheet showing the monthly bills and the additional charges. I think we have been billed twice for the same energy, as most of the units shown on the extra bills were covered by previous bills.

I have taken meter readings, and while the electricity use was higher than the estimate, the gas consumption was substantially less than we have been charged for. I supplied these revised meter readings via email on 23 June. Having had no proper response, I phoned again on 12 July. I was told that I must provide another new reading but that the next estimate, for £102.14, would not be processed by direct debit – but it was. I believe we are owed at least £800. AR, London.

A. A spokeswoman for First Utility responds: "The problems that [the customer has] experienced originated from an incorrect meter reading being recorded by the meter reading company we partner with. It is extremely rare and down to human error, and we are extremely sorry for the inconvenience it has subsequently caused.

"We have now spoken to [the customer] to resolve the matter and ensure he is happy with the outcome, which he now is. We are also reviewing our processes as a result of this case to make sure we do everything we can to correct things more quickly when they go wrong.

"We're also working hard with customers to encourage them to submit monthly readings, something they can do via their online portal. This allows us to alert the customer to an unusual meter reading and therefore allow it to be reviewed to avoid an unexpected bill."

Your account will be reconciled at the end of the current billing period, at the end of August, and you will be sent a payment to clear the credit balance, with an additional £30 as a goodwill gesture for your inconvenience.

Q. Two years ago, I was approached by Osborne Energy, which had been contracted by Camden Council to install wall insulation and a new boiler in my home. Osborne Energy subcontracted the work out. The subcontractor left me with a leaking radiator in my living room, which caused a three-inch deep flood. Live wires were left exposed.

The main boiler was installed in the hallway, without an on/off thermostat. As a result my energy bills doubled over the past two years. My calls to the subcontractor go straight to answer phone. Osborne Energy refuses to discuss the matter with me. AN, London.

A. It is important to raise any problems immediately, resolving them quickly. Once two years – or, as in this case it seems, longer – have elapsed, it is very difficult to get agreement on the nature and cause of a problem, let alone resolve it.

The work on your property was carried out under the London Borough of Camden's Warmth and Comfort scheme, which was managed by Osborne Energy. Debbie Austin, quality assurance manager, says: "All heating installation managed by Osborne Energy received a comprehensive quality inspection. Some minor issues were identified during the inspection carried out on [the reader's] system, but these were rectified almost immediately.

"There were no issues raised regarding the hall radiator, and [the reader] signed a customer satisfaction survey. The work was covered by a one-year parts and labour warranty. As the installation was carried out in September 2009, that has now expired. Osborne Energy had received no notification of any problems with the system by [the reader] from the time the works were carried out until her recent communication, which is almost three years after the system was installed.

"We can confirm that the installers held all necessary certification to carry out heating installations, and installed hundreds of systems across London on various schemes. Regarding the leak, we do have a note of this. [The reader] contacted us at the time to advise she was unhappy with an offer [the subcontractor] had made to compensate for water damage to a rug. She advised she would be writing to us, but no letter was received. Although we sympathise with the reader, I am afraid Osborne Energy will be taking no further action in relation to this matter."

We attempted to contact the subcontractor. We established there were three businesses with virtually identical names operating in the same line of work in London. Two of those have ceased trading and are in liquidation.

The third has told us in very aggressive terms that it did not undertake the work on your property, and Osborne Energy has confirmed that it was not the subcontractor. To avoid confusion, we are therefore not naming your subcontractor, which we are persuaded is no longer trading. You have requested that we do not take the matter up with the London Borough of Camden. There is nothing further we can do.