Widow's battle of the paid electric bill: Elderly lady threatened with disconnection after Sweb loses payment

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THE nightmare that many elderly people dread has come true for Olga Bath, 79, a widow who lives in Dartmouth, writes Neasa MacErlean.

In the past few weeks, Mrs Bath has been threatened with disconnection by the electricity board, despite having paid her bills.

In mid-July, Mrs Bath paid a bill of pounds 62.22 from the South West Electricity Board (Sweb) at Lloyds Bank in Dartmouth, Devon. Fortunately, she kept the receipt.

The payment was apparently lost in the system somewhere between Lloyds and Sweb. So Mrs Bath soon afterwards received a final reminder from Sweb. Keeping a photocopy, she returned the receipt, explaining that she had already paid the bill. However, she continued to receive demands for the money, by telephone and post.

'You can't sleep sometimes with worry about it,' she said. 'Sweb is treating me like a criminal.'

Mrs Bath says she was told not to pay her bills through a bank in future but to take her cheque to the local Sweb showroom. Sweb's head office, however, says it encourages customers to use the easiest means available to them.

Mrs Bath telephoned and wrote to Sweb several times. Lloyds wrote to Sweb three times, telling it that Mrs Bath had paid. But Sweb's pursuit continued.

Then came two letters - from two different Sweb officials - threatening to disconnect Mrs Bath's electricity supply at the start of this month. Both letters said that Sweb wanted to install a payment meter in her house. Both letters concluded with the words: 'If, for any reason, we are unable to install this type of meter we do have the right to disconnect, which will involve additional costs.'

Despite having defended herself vigorously and efficiently and a helpful attitude from Lloyds, Mrs Bath felt powerless to protect herself. Her last resort was to contact the Independent in the hope of exposing Sweb's campaign of 'harrassing an elderly woman'.

When the Independent contacted the Sweb head office, representatives were shocked by Mrs Bath's story.

'There are no excuses,' a spokeswoman said. 'This is unbelievable to all of us. We are astonished. All we can do is apologise. These unfortunate occurrences are down to human error on our part. We are not blaming this on the technology.'

Sweb has since discovered that Mrs Bath's account was put 'on stop' when she first informed them that she had settled the bill through Lloyds. This should have meant that she received no more requests for money until they had found out what happened to her payment.

A few days ago they sent a representative, carrying a bouquet of flowers, to apologise to Mrs Bath. They are also discussing the question of compensation. But Mrs Bath was not impressed with a letter she received from Sweb apologising for the inconvenience and distress that the affair 'may' have caused her.

'I consider 'may' shows complete lack of understanding,' she said.

For its part, Sweb says it has conducted a review that is leading to a change in procedures. Steve Weeks, customer systems manager, issued a statement saying: 'When a payment is missing involving a third party, such as a bank, we have to wait for a prompt from the customer because of confidentiality reasons. As soon as we are aware of a delay or a problem we stop action to collect payment of the bill . . . In future we will now be approaching our customers requesting them to chase up the third party before we send out any follow-up letters requesting payment.'

The Independent does not see how this move would have helped Mrs Bath. In fact, Sweb appears to be putting the onus on the customer to 'chase up' payments that have been lost between Sweb and the banks. But Sweb refused to elaborate on Mr Weeks's statement.

And despite Sweb attributing Mrs Bath's problem to 'human error' on its part, it would not confirm that any individual had been reprimanded. 'It would be absolutely impossible to pinpoint which individual is to blame,' a spokeswoman said. So much for systems and customer service.

(Photograph omitted)

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