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Human tragedy – energy debt leads to shopkeeper suicide

gas supplyIn an appalling sequence of events The Daily Telegraph has reported a story that will shock all those who read it. A shopkeeper, faced with a large payment demand from his energy supplier and limited time and resources to pay it, resorted to taking his own life as workers prepared to cut off his supply.

Albeit the outcome in this case was extreme, the experience of Anthony Waters highlights the impact that rising energy bills are having on UK businesses.

The Telegraph reported that representatives of British Gas, Mr Waters energy supplier, visited the business premises that housed Waters’ family owned grocery store and moved to ‘de-energise’ his electricity supply for non-payment of bills and an alleged debt of £5,000.

The Telegraph explained:

“Despite his [Mr Waters] pleas that he could raise £1,000, one of the gas officials said it was not enough and then plunged the store into darkness”

The transcript from the inquest makes unpleasant reading, British Gas, as is normal procedure sent a warrant officer, a locksmith and an engineer to the premise in Yorkshire. That however proved too much for Mr Waters.

Warrant officer David Pickard, said in a statement to the inquest:

“We attend residents and businesses who have not paid their bills. We either collect the outstanding debt or “de-energise” the electricity supply.

“I went into the shop and Mr Waters was serving customers. He confirmed he was Anthony Waters. I tried to explain why I was there but it was difficult because he was trying to serve customers. We began to talk inside the shop.

“I explained why we were there – if he did not pay there was a warrant and his supply would be de-energised.

“I spoke to a lady who had access to the computer and she confirmed that the debt was still outstanding. They give the final say on whether we de-energise or walk away. She confirmed we had to de-energise if the debt was not paid in full.

“He began to talk to them and then he handed the phone to me. I think he rang a close friend or relative to get money. He said he could get about £1,000 but I said that was not enough.

“He clearly felt he should have been given more time to pay. He said “You will have to do it” referring to us de-energising the electricity supply.

“But he was getting more anxious and said “I will hang myself”. I thought it was just a throw away comment, an idle threat. In my line of work I hear people say it quite regularly and think nothing of it.

“I just thought this was idle threats and trying to make us feel sorry for him so we would not go ahead. He kept trying to hurry us up saying “I want you to leave now”.

Mr Pickard’s comment that he and his colleagues “think nothing of” desperate reactions from desperate customers are a deeply depressing thought.

Having closed the shutters to the shop and sent his staff home, Mr Waters told the British Gas team to “get on with it”. By the time police arrived, called by British Gas, Mr Waters had already taken his own life and the officers found his body in a warehouse at the back of the shop.

Concluding the inquest the coroner Oliver Longstaff said:

“There is considerable evidence in my mind that Anthony Waters was under a considerable amount of stress with the financial difficulties of the business.

“There is evidence that he was put on the spot by the British Gas officers. He closed the shop and sent people away.

“He took himself to the rear of the building where he took his own life. There was no evidence that he was suffering from any psychological conditions or that his judgement was impaired by use of alcohol.

“He was a man who had done his best for a long time to keep the family business which he took great pride in, in good health for as long as he could. He realised he couldn’t do that for any longer and took a view that all that was left was to end his life.”

Following the inquest, British Gas released a statement with spokesperson Leonie Edwards saying:

“We were very saddened by the death of Mr Waters and we would like to express our sincere sympathies to his family.

“British Gas employees followed our established procedures and contacted the police when they were onsite and stayed there until they arrived.”

“Disconnection is always a last resort and this usually follows a series of discussions including payment plans and support from organisations like Business Debtline to try and resolve the issue.”

Mr Waters father, who founded the grocery business in the 1960s said:

“British Gas were already charging us thousands for the shop even though it had been shut down for a while. How they could have accumulated a bill like that when it was closed I don’t know.

“Anthony was paying his current British Gas bill so as far as we were concerned they had come around to collect money for a bill he shouldn’t have been paying.

“I think Anthony felt he had let us down. He was pushed to the point of desperation by a big corporation bullying him because it couldn’t give a bit of leeway to a single man struggling and he was pushed over the edge. I think it is disgusting.

“I’m sure they could have arranged for another payment scheme if things were getting that bad. I don’t understand why British Gas had to send three men to his shop without any warning.

“It was a bit heavy-handed and these companies forget the human side of things. Where is their humanity?”

Whilst there is no suggestion that British Gas and their employees knew what the consequence of their actions would be it is perhaps this unthinking approach that is most shocking.

From our own experience of representing businesses that have been hit with large payment demands and back bills, it is this intransigent attitude of the suppliers that resonates most loudly.

Indeed there appears to be an attitude of “you’ve used it, so you need to pay for it, and now”.

This may be justified in some instances but all too many times we find that suppliers’ inaccurate billing, poor record keeping, faulty meters and substandard administration are the underlying cause of these payment demands, and yet regardless of the source of the fault it is the customer who must pay.

The adoption of back billing limits to minimise the monies that can be demanded from a customer after a supplier error are welcome, and whilst there is no clear evidence that British Gas had erroneously demanded the monies from Mr Waters, his father’s description of a vacant property suggests that incorrect assumptions could have been being made that ultimately cost Mr Waters his life.

Whilst Mr Waters’ reaction was unprecedented, the prevalence of such demands from energy suppliers is all too common.

Right now Business Juice are arbitrating between two businesses and their suppliers for payment demands many times the size that drove Mr Waters to suicide.

One, Titos Peruvian Restaurant has received a bill for over £100,000 to cover a period when nPower, their supplier, was incorrectly reading their meter.

Another, Great Palstone Caravan Park, face demands of many £’000s due to their supplier, British Gas, allegedly having failed to invoice them on their contracted rates.

In both instances, the bills were being paid to the best of their knowledge but errors on the part of their suppliers have landed them with payment demands that threaten their livelihoods through no fault of their own.

Thankfully it is only livelihoods and not lives at risk in these cases but it is clearly time for energy suppliers to wake up and understand the consequences of their actions and to prevent such errors occurring in the first instance.

If anything can be gained from Mr Waters’ death it is to be hoped that no one else is pushed to such drastic action by the unthinking actions of an energy supplier.

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