How British Gas let down a nation
British Gas says it is founded on a proud 200-year heritage of heating homes and businesses. Yet the energy firm is facing another winter of mounting complaints after customers have been left without heating for weeks in what MPs have called a “scandal”.
This cold season has brought about yet another flurry of gripes about British Gas HomeCare, a policy that promises to promptly fix boilers and heating.
More than three million customers pay British Gas for the protection and cost of annual servicing. But this year, just as in the previous two winters, customers are complaining of long delays for repairs and five-hour waits on the phone.
It comes as parent company Centrica this week forecast an eightfold rise in annual profits after the war in Ukraine sent energy prices soaring.
Customers and critics are now demanding that the City regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, take stronger action, more than a year after it was first asked to investigate.
Centrica’s latest accounts show that in 2021 customer complaints about British Gas Services increased by 62pc. The services arm also lost an estimated £60m to disruption caused by the pandemic and industrial action.
The energy provider’s insurance policy promises it will dispatch an engineer to customers “within a reasonable time”. In December it said it had experienced a 40pc rise in callouts but it insists that 99.1pc of vulnerable customers were seen by an engineer within 24 hours of reporting an emergency breakdown.
Yetunde Momolafe’s boiler broke down a week before Christmas just as temperatures plummeted to minus 7C (19F). But Momolafe, 42, who pays £50 a month for a HomeCare policy, is still without heating, and now hot water.
Momolafe, who qualifies as a vulnerable customer as her son has a respiratory condition, says: “When I first called them I was left on hold for over an hour.”
A string of engineers have since come to her property, but Momolafe says: “It’s been a month with no heating and now I have no hot water. I am literally having to harass British Gas to come and fix what they’ve done.”
The only option left to her is to pay for a local engineer herself, but doing so would void her HomeCare policy, leaving her a “hostage” to the insurance, she says.
It is understood that MPs could look at the company’s failings as part of a wider inquiry into energy pricing.
Alexander Stafford, Conservative MP for Rother Valley and a member of the business, energy and industrial strategy select committee, says it is “scandalous” that customers have been left without a functioning boiler for weeks.
He says: “It is completely unacceptable that there is no guaranteed timescale for an engineer, which makes these policies not worth the paper they are written on.”
Martyn James, a consumer expert, says home emergency policies are often “vague and non-committal”. He adds: “It’s clear that the insurers have no interest in defining the minimum service standards customers can expect, so the regulator needs to step in and tighten the rules to make them.”
The FCA, meanwhile, says it is aware of the issues with HomeCare and has “set out expectations” to the firm, although it refused to provide further details.
Customers are running out of patience. Ian Ross, from Lincolnshire, was offered £10 after a boiler breakdown left him and his wife without heating throughout the December cold snap.
After three cancelled appointments, Ross, 51, says the company “stonewalled” him. With temperatures already below zero, Ross and his wife, Wendy, paid for a local engineer to help.
“We’re definitely going to cancel HomeCare,” Ross says. “We might as well have saved the £66 a month.”
Some disgruntled customers have found the easiest way to get British Gas’s attention is to broadcast their complaints on social media.
Alison Coates, from Preston, also qualifies as a priority customer as her husband, James, suffers from multiple sclerosis. As the cold snap hit, the Coateses’ shower broke – and soon water began to pour through the ceiling.
She says: “We rang British Gas and they said it would be a five-hour wait on the phone. So we went through Twitter and Facebook to get a response.”
After the first proposed appointment fell through, communications broke down with British Gas, prompting Coates, 50, to book a local engineer, who came straight away.
A British Gas spokesman said: “Our engineers work round the clock to service our HomeCare customers and we’re able to get someone out swiftly for most customers when they need us.
“We’ve invested in our capabilities, including an additional 350 engineers to manage spikes in demand, and are improving appointment availability as we know customers need us as quickly as possible.”