'Too dangerous' for Southern Electric or EDF to fix their own equipment in my house

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 10 September 2009

This is the astonishing story of how, thanks to the disconnected way our utilities have been privatised, a woman expecting a baby in 7 days time has been left in a house with no electricity for two nights. At first neither EDF or Southern Electricity could agree on whose responsibility it was to look at the problem, and then, when one of them did finally take the job on, they decided it was 'too dangerous' to send an engineer to fix it.

Late on Wednesday night the power in our new house failed, and I assumed that I had blown a fuse, as it died when I plugged my laptop into a wall socket. Thursday morning we tried to replace the fuse, but to no avail. I then tried to establish whether in fact the problem was that our supply had been cut.

The meter had an EDF logo on it, and so I called their emergency line. They said that Southern were the suppliers, so I phoned their emergency line. After taking my details, I explained the situation, and they assured me that the supply to the house was still on, and we sorted out my account details with them.

Now we knew the problem was more serious than a fuse, my wife then got an electrician in, who was horrified to discover that the meter had been tampered with by the previous owners, and that there were exposed connections to the incoming mains supply in the cupboard under our stairs. He thought it was a miracle that in our attempts to change the fuse and rectify the problem so far neither of us had been electrocuted.

He phoned to get permission to break the seal on the meter to render it safe but he was not given permission to do so. Southern's emergency hotline operators insisted that the problem was EDF's responsibility, but when my wife phoned EDF's emergency hotline, they insisted that Southern needed to attend to it. Eventually, someone at Southern told her that they had contacted EDF, and arranged that EDF would be sending out an engineer. Well, that is what they told her.

No engineer appeared.

Further calls from her to EDF were met with the 'it is nothing to do with us' line, whilst a call to Southern again got the response 'yes, we've arranged this with EDF and they are sending an engineer'.

Still nobody came.

When I got home at 7pm I phoned Southern to get a status update, and the operator said it was nothing to do with them, we couldn't possibly have been using their emergency number to deal with this problem, and that we had to contact EDF. I explained the whole situation, and that Southern Electric had been dealing with the issue all day, but she still insisted it was nothing to do with them. After 15 minutes on the phone, she finally agreed to speak to her supervisor and call me back.

Whilst I was waiting for that to happen, I tried phoning EDF's emergency line again. They said they had no record of any engineering job at our address, and the phone operator insisted that because the meter had been tampered with, it was the revenue protection team at Southern who needed to visit first. He said he'd call them personally, and then phone me back. He was good on his word, and said that Southern would now call me to progress things.

When they did call, they started by trying to talk to me as if I was a customer who had been cut off because I was in debt. I explained that this wasn't the issue, and began telling the whole saga again. This operator informed me that there was no record on their system of us having any conversations with Southern at all that day about the problem.

Sitting in the twilight gloom as I was, you can see how my patience with this infinite loop might begin to wear thin...

There was finally a breakthrough of sorts, because at least in this call Southern finally accepted that they needed to send someone - and didn't just tell me to call EDF again. However, after being put on hold for five minutes, I was told that no engineer was willing to come because it was 'too dangerous' and the department she needed to talk to about it was closed for the night.

The best I was able to wrangle out of her was that they would personally 'take ownership of the issue' and would call the relevant department which she 'believed' opened at 9am. I asked for a direct number for that department but was told there wasn't one. I asked for the operator's full name so I could speak to her again in the morning, but I was only given a first name and told 'I don't have to give out my name'.

There is no point taking personal issue with the people I spoke to, but as I said to the final person I spoke to on the phone, let us be clear here about the situation. What you are saying as a company is that my wife, who is expecting a baby in seven days, has to spend a second night in a house that you supply the electricity for, with no electricity, because there is a dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation with your electricity meter equipment, and you are not prepared to send an engineer out because it is 'too dangerous' and 'out of hours'.

There is no higher authority to go to. Ofgem don't take consumer complaints. A private electrician was willing to render it safe but can't touch the meter because they don't have permission from EDF or Southern Electric. EDF, the electrical distributor for our area won't touch it because they don't do the billing. The engineers who work for Southern Electric, the company who do the billing, won't come out because it is 'too dangerous'.

It is like being in a Kafka play. Albeit a softly candle-lit one...

Anyone have any suggestions of what I could try next?

13 Comments

Ofgem don't take consumer complaints, but Consumer Direct, the replacement for Energywatch, do. Their site's shit, but you can ring them on 08454 04 05 06.

Give 'em hell.

Blimey Martin! No suggestions but a very sympathetic hug to you and Mrs B.

I had a scenario earlier this year nowhere near as bad as yours but one that still rendered me frustrated and angry for the best part of 4 months. Having moved house in January and given nPower (my supplier) a month's advance warning of my move and desire to transfer my account to the new house, I discovered on the day I moved in that the property was fitted with smartcard prepayment meters.

I rang nPower immediately to request a change of meter - I have epilepsy and a seizure can leave me incapacitated for up to 24 hours. I was very worried that if I had a fit and the meter ran out I could be left without either electricity or gas until I was well enough to go to the shop to top up the cards.

nPower said they could do nothing until a month's time when they actually took over the supply. However, they assured me they have a disability policy and I'd be given priority. Ha! It took endless phone calls, because of course nPower kept changing the date at which they would take over supply and start billing me, plus another 5-6 weeks after that before thy could change the meters. You can see where this is going...

The short version is that I had to make 8-9 calls to get a firm promise of a meter change and 4 times I was assured that my disability had been noted (except every time I rang, the call centre bod said there was no record of a disability request on my account. It took 14 weeks before two engineers (one for the gas, one for the leccy) turned up to exchange my meters. During that time I had two seizures and on both occasions the meters ran out, leaving me with no power for hours until I was well enough to venture out to the shops.

Two days after the 2nd meter was changed, nPower kindly sent me a leaflet outlining their disability policy, which includes braille billing and other obvious things. None of which was any help and I'd already told them exactly what my needs were - a meter that wouldn't run out of credit. I was incredibly angry and I did eventually get some compensation for their shoddy treatment of me. The day after I got the cheque, I received a press release about how proud nPower was to be sponsoring sports opportunities for the disabled. Great, except they don't give a flying duck about their disabled customers!

Sorry - none of this helps you and Mrs B. It's just another example of how a disjointed, privatised utilities industry fails those it should be helping most.

I really hope you get this sorted asap.

I tend to get hysterical immediately and ask to speak to managers and supervisors and refuse to continue with call centre staff, tears often help, swearing doesn't, shouting is a bit so so.

Speak to your local council housing officer and tell them the situation, they may say they can't help you, but should be able to advise, especially if you say you couldn't possibly live there once the baby is born and therefore would be homeless and a drain on their services.

Ring your local paper.

There's also something called the Decent Homes Standard which seems mainly to do with social housing, but it does extend to owner occupiers as far as I know. I haven't got time to do any research to see if it would help right now, but might be worth looking into.

Good luck!

Martin,

That's incredibly shabby treatment.

The only thing I can suggest is trying Consumer Direct. The Ofgem website suggests that they are the right people to talk to in the first instance.

Dear Martin,

There is a formal complaints procedure you can follow that can be found at http://tr.im/yjR4. However, that won't help with immediately solving your dilemma.
If you can contact us with your details on the e-mail addressed supplied we will get in touch.

That's terrible. Hope you've got it sorted.

I'm currently having all sorts of grief with my energy supplier (Good Energy, who aren't good at all) and can really empathise. Thankfully mine is only to do with their inefficiency to provide bills, note down meter readings but it's still incredibly frustrating.

Why is it so difficult to provide good service?

OK. We have electricity again now.

Also been getting some great comment spam left on here as well:

"I ran across you blog and I think you are being treated un fare. Good Luck"

"Nice post and interesting. Everyone is trying to be frugal with online coupons and saved a lot of money. Visit <spammy URL> for all coupons."

and my favourite

"There is no point taking personal issue, it happens everyday"

Nasty treatment. Glad you have power again. EDF are terrible, we had building work that couldn't go on because the builders wouldn't go anywhere near the 59-year-old meter they insisted wasn't due for replacement.

Huge congratulations on the impending fatherhood, by the way.

Ian

One of the legal requirements for a property to be fit for human habitation is that it has "adequate provision for lighting, heating and ventilation". So on those grounds alone I think you'd be within your rights to insist the council provide you with emergency accommodation.

However you probably don't really want to that as council emergency accommodation is rarely very pleasant, but depending on how vengeful you feel you might well want to grab a solicitor once this is all over and see if you can at least wring an admission of guilt out of one or both electricity companies. And maybe some compensation, too.

I'm currently having all sorts of grief with my energy supplier (Good Energy, who aren't good at all) and can really empathise. Thankfully mine is only to do with their inefficiency to provide bills, note down meter readings but it's still incredibly frustrating.

Depending on how useless the company is, I tend to rely on locating their Press Office and playing the 'media' card on the very rare occasions I've had something as bad as you - there's always dropping a note to Watchdog, and also Consumer Direct as mentioned above.
Sometimes a quick search on LinkedIn can also find a route to a real person who can actually do stuff...
Or just invest in rewiring your entire house and fitting solar panels etc..

EDF are rubbish.

I rented a flat in Wapping that had tampered meter - well not tampered, EDF just didn't know the flat existed. When I moved in I registered with them as the new tennent, and they proceeded to bill be for the next door's flat electricity.

Multiple phone calls, lost records of my complaint, lost records of the 1st engineers visit, debt collection letters sent to my mum's after I left the flat 9 months after moving in. They insited my meter would have to be changed and never did it. EDF's revenue protection service never rang me back and didn't answer the phone number i was given.

Eventually, after talking to the same manager twice i think they gave up and I never got a bill :)

These companies are foreign-owned. EDF is part of the huge French national power system. We privatise so that foreign govt-owned companies can buy us up. Scottish Power is Spanish, EON is German. But we are not told how much their citizens pay - why doesn't the BBC ask its correspondents across Europe to give us the picture. When my daughter had trouble with Orange (French) I wrote a stinker to their CEO in Paris - it worked - I had anxious phone calls from the London office and it was cleared up.

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