by Cary Gee
I spent the height of lockdown isolating far from the plague pits of London, returning to the capital only when medically necessary, and justifiable under current emergency legislation.
While away I received numerous texts from my electricity supplier, SSE, informing me that they had sent me a 'very important letter'. Had I won the Nigerian Lottery? Perhaps I had succumbed to Covid, been induced into a coma and this government of halfwits was but a dream? I could barely contain my excitement on returning to my flat to open my mail, only to discover that the sole communication from SSE was in fact a bill. I say bill, but it more resembled a conjuring trick. Although not a large amount in itself, £57.40 struck me as excessive for leaving a small fridge switched on while I had been away. So I queried the demand, submitted a meter reading and requested an actual bill. On my next visit to the property I opened another 'very important letter' to discover, not the revised bill I was expecting but a letter informing me I had defaulted on their original 'pie in the sky' estimate.
'You have not paid your energy bill of £57.40 so we are preparing to take debt recovery action against you' intoned the very important letter. 'We may', It continued in bold:
'As soon as we are able, following a relaxation of the UK Government's restriction of movement:
Begin.....there followed numerous explicit threats including starting legal proceedings against me in the County Court, and obtaining a Right of Entry Warrant to fit a Pay as You Go Meter.
The only problem with this nonsense, is that before starting any legal proceedings the claimant must first be able to prove that you do actually owe the sum being claimed. Given that my actual bill, according to the meter reading, was only £32.50, or 44 percent lower than the amount claimed, SSE does not of course, have a legal leg to stand on. And never did.
To threaten someone with legal action for an entirely fictional amount of money is akin to me telling a mate. 'I don't remember exactly how much I lent you in the bar last night so why don't we just call it £100 and be done with it? (knowing full well it was almost certainly less than that because on every single occasion up to now it has been less than that!).
My relationship with SSE has been a little like going out with the 'Wrong Guy' for way too long, just because I am too lazy, optimistic, or browbeaten to show him the door. I know he'll never change, but what the hell? He's got a key now!
After several years of settling my Very Important Letters (this fatuous obfuscation is beyond stupid) by direct debit I cancelled it, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that I didn't believe a word the important letters said, and I was right not to. Without exception the amounts claimed were invariably higher, often in the region of 50-60 percent higher, than the amount of electricity I had actually used. This led to a very important letter informing me that the very important letters were necessary because I had a history of late payments. Is it any wonder when I insist on verification before handing over a penny?
Not only was I outraged to receive a default notice, I was surprised because a call handler at SSE had promised to send out a revised bill instead. When I sent them a very important email detailing my complaints a reply arrived after 5 days informing me they were unable to investigate without an account number, which, had they bothered to look, was contained in the subject box of the email they had replied to. I add lazy to my list of complaints.
On a more serious note, the threat of nefarious legal action to reclaim money I never owed is simply grist to my mill. But on Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day, I can't help wondering how many people, in particular those suddenly in receipt of benefits for the first time, or at the end of a lengthy queue for Universal Credit might be tipped over the edge by the morally repugnant, and legally dubious bullying, for that is what it is, of SSE? Surely to demand money for goods and services not actually received, under the threat of County Court action is a crime in itself? Daylight robbery? No. Let's call it what it is: theft! So why are utility companies allowed not only to get away with this, but to prosper while the rest of us are required to take the financial hit delivered by Coronavirus with barely a whimper?
Strangely, I'm not holding my breath for a very important apology, but I have, after 16 years finally dumped 'the wrong guy'. I only regret it took me so long!
Cary Gee is a former contributor to the New Statesman, Tribune, trade union officer, and LGBT campaigner.