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Water complaints process a 'sham', say angry boycotters



The process for resolving complaints against a water company is not fit for purpose, claim angry water customers.

Below is an open letter sent to Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey from water customers across England and Wales currently withholding payment in protest at inadequate provision of wastewater services.

Ten out of the 11 companies providing sewage treatment services are currently under active boycott for their failure to dispose of wastewater safely and responsibly, according to data from boycottwaterbills.com.

The letter, originally signed by 50 boycotters from seven water companies, details customers' varied experiences looking for resolution to their complaints.

It shows they have been given contradictory advice to seek redress from bodies which, under the current system, do not consider themselves capable of dealing with the complaints.

The letter, which has gained further support since it was sent to the Environment Minister on Tuesday 19 September, now represents boycotters from 8 out of the 11 firms that provide wastewater treatment services in England and Wales.

These are Southern Water, United Utilities, Severn Trent Water, Thames Water, Yorkshire Water, Wessex Water, South West Water and Anglian Water.

The full text of the letter is reproduced below.




FAO: The Environment Minister Dr Thérèse Coffey MP

CC: Rebecca Pow MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environmental Quality and Resilience

House of Commons London SW1A 0AA

19 September 2023

AN OPEN LETTER

RE: WHO ACTS FOR WATER CUSTOMERS? NOBODY, IT SEEMS

We are writing as dissatisfied water customers currently in the process of making formal complaints about the performance of our various water companies through the government’s consumer complaints processes.

The unanimous complaint is about persistent sewage spills and performance: specifically, that our water companies have failed to dispose responsibly of wastewater during the billed period. In recognition of this poor performance and negligent, unsafe provision, a number of us have withheld the part of our bill relating to wastewater disposal only.

All water companies in the UK are monopolies regulated by OFWAT. In OFWAT’s published Customer Engagement Policy Statement and Expectations policy of 2011, Principle 1 of the 7 overarching principles of good customer engagement states:

‘Water companies should deliver outcomes that customers and society value at a

price they are willing to pay.’

This is a founding principle of OFWAT’S own guidance, though it has since been updated in 2022 to state simply: the right outcomes at the right price, at the right time.

However, it appears this foundational principle is being roundly ignored and undermined by the lack of an adequate scheme for redress of customer complaints. On the contrary, we argue that consumers are being actively dissuaded from seeking redress by a system that threatens, punishes and bullies them into submission, silence and compliance. We outline below our experiences with the system.

Once our complaints have been unilaterally dismissed by our water companies, they advise us to go to the Consumer Council of Water (CCW) to seek resolution.

The CCW is a public body sponsored by DEFRA[1] and on the website homepage it claims it is: ‘Here to fight your corner – the voice for water consumers.’

We have discovered this is manifestly not the case. In the many complaints raised by us about our water companies persistent sewage dumping, the CCW states routinely that they are unable to deal with these complaints as the issue does not fall under their remit.

So who acts for the customer?

In one letter (CCW caseworker response 1) a CCW caseworker forlornly remarked:

‘I do understand that this is an incredibly emotive issue, especially in the current climate. One with which I personally can empathise with and understand your concerns totally.

In this instance I would recommend your next course of action would be to contact your local authority. I would also recommend contacting the Environment Agency.’

The caseworker also suggested contacting as the Next Step the Water Redress Scheme: a ‘free and independent dispute resolution scheme’.

In the meantime, we sought to clarify with the CCW whether we were obliged to settle the disputed amount with the water company while our complaint was outstanding.

In separate emails we were advised in writing of two contradictory positions (documents provided):

1) That, according to OFWAT guidelines, water companies are not supposed to pursue debt collection while a complaint is being investigated. (CCW Caseworker response 2)

2) And that, despite this guidance, the company can still report the customer to debt collection agencies and report their actions as ‘missed payments’ to credit reference agencies, potentially leading to court action and negatively affecting their credit score. (CCW Caseworker response 3)

This advice is absurd and, we argue, designed to put off complaints from being pursued by a customer. How is a complaint meant to be adequately investigated if the complainant is being threatened with debt collection, court action and a negative credit rating? The system appears to penalise anybody with a monetary dispute against their water company. And while there can be serious negative consequences for an individual to raise a complaint there appears no such consequence to a company failing to provide ‘outcomes that customers and society value at a price they are willing to pay’.

Those of us who have not been deterred by these threats have now reached the stage of submitting our complaints with the Water Redress Scheme. But we do not have much hope of resolution there either. When one customer submitted her complaint to be investigated it was initially accepted by WATRS. However, following an intervention by the water company in question, the case was withdrawn on the basis that the scheme is not authorised to adjudicate in such a matter (WATRS complaint rejected). Even if the complaint is accepted, our research reveals that in the past not ONE single complaint has been resolved in the customer’s favour.

So where is the dissatisfied water customer to go for resolution?

We argue the system currently in place is a sham, designed to appear as if there is adequate recourse for customers but in reality deterring and penalising potential complainants. Not one of the bodies mentioned above is apparently empowered to act in our interests. The system is not fit for purpose.

Toothless regulation has allowed water companies to routinely abuse their monopoly positions by providing an inadequate level of service, thus undermining the rationale for a regulated monopoly.

We ask how the founding principle of water provision in this country is meant to be applied when there is no adequate system to ensure that the water companies ‘deliver outcomes that customers and society value at a price they are willing to pay.’


Signed


Katy Colley, Hastings, East Sussex – customer of Southern Water

Julie Wassmer, Whitstable, Kent – customer of Southern Water

Vikki Hobbs, Herne Bay, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Jo Bateman, Exmouth - customer of South West Water

Claire North, Barnham, West Sussex - customer of Southern Water

Jim Murray, Ovington, Hampshire - customer of Southern Water

Alison R Noyes, Hastings - customer of Southern Water

Liz Farr, St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex - customer of Southern Water

William Houston, Grange over Sands, Cumbria - customer of United Utilities

Dr Felicity Larence, Hastings, East Sussex

Katy Young, Brighton, East Sussex - Customer of Southern Water

David Weston, Ford, Devon - customer of South West Water

Melina Lafirenze, Cambs - customer of Anglian Water

Laura Coppin, Hastings, East Sussex - customer of Southern Water

Councillor Steven Wheeler, Whitstable, customer of Southern Water

Gill Davis, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, customer of Severn Trent Water

Olivia Cavanagh, Hastings, East Sussex - customer of Southern Water

Tim Wild, Shoreham by Sea, West Sussex - customer of Southern Water

Mike Slade, Hythe - customer of Southern Water

Julie Fuller, Margate - customer of Southern Water

Laura Sorensen, Meare, Somerset - customer of Wessex Water

Brian Sorensen, Meare, Somerset - customer of Wessex Water

Jonathan Kasparian, Whitstable, Kent - customer of Southern Water

John Devalle, Leeds, West Yorkshire - customer of Yorkshire Water

Rowena Rowling, St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex – customer of Southern Water

Cazzie Rawden - customer of Southern Water

Mary Carewe, Broadstairs, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Chris Dash, Canterbury, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Bob Fearnside, Whitstable, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Peter La Brooy, Brighton, customer of Southern Water

Marianne Fearnside, Whitstable, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Amy Richardson, Seaford, East Sussex - customer of Southern Water

Hilary Plews, Richmond, N. Yorks - customer of Yorkshire Water

Elane Heffernan, Whitstable, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Claire Kirby, Shrewsbury, Shropshire - customer of Severn Trent Water

Diane Langford, Whitstable - customer of Southern Water

Rob Morris, Whitstable - customer of Southern Water

Rod Black, Blackpool - customer of United Utilities

Frankie Green, Whitstable - customer of Southern Water

Christine Richardson, Seaford - customer of Southern Water

Amy Page, Seaford, East Sussex - customer of Southern Water

Carolyn Heaps, Eastbourne, East Sussex- customer of Southern Water

Ray Walton, Bournemouth, Dorset - customer of Wessex Water

Jessica Rose, Margate, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Elizabeth Campbell, Margate, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Chris Stanley, Whitstable - customer of Southern Water

Helen Delanghe, Firle, East Sussex - customer of Southern Water

Lois Cole, Sheffield - customer of Yorkshire water

Emma Gibson, Whitstable, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Clare Cassar, Chatham, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Beryl Cassar, Chatham, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Sam Glazer, St Leonards, East Sussex - customer of Southern Water

Mary Culhane, Friends of the River Exe - customer South West Water

Naomi Salaman Friends of Seaford Bay - customer of Southern Water

Ann Keen, Exeter, Devon - customer of South West Water

Jane Cumbers, Exmouth, customer of South West Water

Sophie Coleman, Exmouth, customer of South West Water

Emma Mani, Dacorum, customer of Thames Water

Helen Frederick, Seaford, customer of Southern Water

Chloe Fox, Exmouth, customer of South West Water

Chris Stone, Whitstable, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Matt Marlow, Stockport, Cheshire - customer of United Utilities

Ted Basset-Myers, Whitstable, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Marty Munday, Tankerton, Kent - customer of Southern Water

Sarah Ellington, Lewes, East Sussex - Southern Water

Grace Archer, Lewes, East Sussex - customer of Southern Water

Michael Deacon, East Sussex - customer of Southern Water


[1] Though purportedly a "non-departmental public body" CCW comes under DEFRA, and the Environment Minister is charged with determining its executives.



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