Vulnerable renters ‘hounded’ by utility companies to pay off landlord debts
Thames Water has apologised for chasing a tenant who was recently homeless for his landlord’s bills
Vulnerable renters are being “hounded” by utility companies to pay off huge debts despite having ‘bills included’ contracts with their landlord.
openDemocracy has spoken to a tenant who was chased by Thames Water for a £1,000 water bill while struggling with homelessness, and another who was visited by a third-party debt collector after her landlord did not pay her bills with EDF Energy.
Both tenants continued to be pursued over the debts after their suppliers were made aware of the tenancy agreements.
Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
A tenants’ advocacy group said it was seeing the issue “time and time again” and hit out at the “completely irresponsible” utility companies for pursuing renters.
Lloyd Lee, a residential care worker for 25 years, was made homeless after his landlord illegally evicted him. Months after he was forced out of his property, and following an unsuccessful court case to return him to the flat, he was contacted by Thames Water regarding unpaid water bills north of £1,000.
“I was angry,” Lee told openDemocracy. “There were a lot of emotions that were going on with me because I’m actually homeless, and I’ve been sleeping from pillar to post. I’ve spent literally all my savings paying for hotels and bed and breakfast places. It’s just been a nightmare.”
Lee’s rent covered bills at his former property, according to a tenancy agreement seen by openDemocracy, which leaves his landlord liable for the water bill. Despite this, it was left unpaid.
Although Thames Water was informed of Lee’s rental situation by a tenants’ advocacy group, the utility company told him via Twitter that it would need confirmation from his landlord before it would change the name. If this was not done, Lee would be “responsible for paying as the occupant”.
After openDemocracy contacted Thames Water, Lee received a call from the company, apologising for his experience and offering him compensation. The account has now been closed.
Tenants have also faced issues with energy suppliers. Daniel Gherghiceanu received multiple letters from EDF Energy after it identified her as liable for bills that were in fact covered in the contract for her south London home.
Gherghiceanu was eventually visited by debt collectors from Fulmar Services, even after informing EDF that paying the bill was her landlord’s responsibility.
In an email seen by openDemocracy, EDF said it had referred the matter to a debt collection agency and that Gherghiceanu would need to contact it herself to clear the debt.
An employee for EDF said: “I would like to inform you that it is a personal matter between you and your landlord in regards [sic] to paying the bills.”
“It has given me so much stress,” Gherghiceanu told openDemocracy. “They’ve sent me this letter not once but many times. I work for my children, not to pay this money.”
When openDemocracy contacted EDF, it said it would not comment on individual cases but added: “Our customer services team will be reaching out to the customer to clarify the matter which you have raised.”
Tenant advocacy group Safer Renting said this is a common problem facing vulnerable tenants.
“This is an issue we are seeing time and time again in our casework,” John-Luke Bolton, a spokesperson for Safer Renting, told openDemocracy. “It often happens to tenants who have already been through very distressing times, facing issues such as harassment or illegal eviction or extreme disrepair and overcrowding. They are being hounded for thousands of pounds they don’t owe.
“This is something utility companies need to address urgently. Their current attitude is one of indifference. It’s completely irresponsible.”
Labour MP Nadia Whittome told openDemocracy: "Some utility companies seem more interested in recouping debt from vulnerable people by any means. This practice has to end.”
A Thames Water spokesperson told openDemocracy it had now closed Lee’s account.
“We’re sorry for issues relating to a customer account which was opened through our empty checking process,” a spokesperson said. “This is our proactive way of identifying who is responsible for bills when water is being used at a property but it’s empty. We use publicly available third-party information as well as information from our credit referencing partner.”
“We’ve since been informed about the customer’s circumstances during their tenancy and when they were resident at the property. As a result of this, we’ve contacted the customer directly to confirm the account in their name has been closed, they do not owe us any money and there has been no negative impact to their credit file as a result of this.
“We’re sorry for any stress and inconvenience this may have caused the customer and we have offered them a goodwill gesture.”
With rising heating and electricity costs, tenants are facing increasing pressure to pay bills that are often not their responsibility. In February, openDemocracy revealed that students in Sheffield had been threatened by bailiffs despite signing a contract that made their landlord, Unihomes, responsible for bills. Unihomes said that the experiences of these students were “exceptional circumstances” and that the matter had been “resolved”.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
We’ve got a newsletter for everyone
Get our weekly email
CommentsWe encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.