Retailers must keep doing everything in their power to help struggling businesses impacted by Covid-19 get back on their feet without the threat of debt recovery action.
That’s the message from the Consumer Council for Water (CCW) which has been helping some retailers resolve a rise in billing disputes over the summer months as many businesses emerged from Covid-19 restrictions.
The consumer body has been working closely with the regulator Ofwat to ensure retailers offer business customers affected by the pandemic tailored support, including repayment plans. CCW is also pressing for changes to the code of practice that protects customers so businesses that have been forced to close at any point due to the virus do not face debt recovery action, disconnection or interest charges for late or overdue payments.
The reopening of some commercial premises over the summer coincided with a 42 per cent rise in complaints to CCW between July and September after a relatively quiet first quarter. Many of these were from customers who returned to discover estimated water bills that did not reflect their usage.
July and August also saw a sharp increase in disputes over the recovery of water debt – particularly from customers of Castle Water – at a time when retailers were being urged by CCW and regulators to support businesses on the road to recovery.
Adam Boyns, Policy Manager at CCW, said:
“We recognise it has been a challenging time for water retailers but they have a vital role to play in helping businesses get back on their feet.”
“Many retailers have been supportive of their customers but we want to see stronger protections put in place to shield businesses that have been forced to close and need some breathing room, rather than the suffocating threat of debt recovery.”
CCW received a total of 1,252 business customer complaints during the first six months of 2020-21 – with more than 80 per cent relating to billing problems.
Complaints made by Castle Water customers to CCW tripled between July and September compared to the previous three months with the retailer largely responsible for the rise in overall disputes during the second quarter of the year.
There was much better news for customers of First Business Water which did not generate a single complaint to CCW, while Water2Business retained its position as one of the market’s best performers.
CCW compares the performance of retailers by examining the number of complaints it has received per 10,000 supply points, the quality of complaint handling and how quickly disputes have been resolved.