United Utilities bend time, ignore charter to avoid compensation
United Utilities is the UK's largest listed water company with an annual turnover of over £2 billion. And according to evidence presented by one avid Bitterwallet reader, they're very keen to keep as much of those billions as possible, by refusing to pay compensation to customers who go without water for long stretches of time.
Back in July, reader Iain found he was without water for the third time in 12 months. He rang the company to ask about compensation, but was told that mains bursts would not be compensated for, as they were out of the company’s control. Except when he checked on their website, he found this on page 3 of their Standards of Excellence document:
“Where water mains have burst, we aim to restore your supply within 12 hours. If we identify that we have failed to get your supply back on within 12 hours, we will pay you £25 plus another £10 for every additional 12 hour period that we leave you without water”.
Iain was also told the leak affecting him had been temporarily fixed at 3:30am that morning, and had supplied the area with a 'trickle' of water to
everyone’s home - the reason Iain had no water was that it was peak time at 7:30am, and everyone was attempting to utilise the ‘trickle’. In other words, nobody had their water supply restored yet, because there was an unmentioned caveat stating customers could only use their taps one at a time.
Unfortunately for United Utilities, Iain first became aware of the problem several hours before he called, at 3am, and took a screengrab of this service update a short time later:
Not only was the update posted after the rep claimed the problem had been fixed, but it had been updated to say there was still a problem at 5.45am. But when he checked the update later that morning, United Utilities had not only edited this detail out, but changed the start time of the problem:
So according to United Utilities, the problem began at 6.30am, not 3.50am. Iain phoned to ask what had happened, and was told "only a handful had complained at 3:50am, so it didn’t count - it wasn’t until many more complaints had been received that the official start time had commenced." No, we're not making this up. The official start time of a loss of water supply bears so relation to the actual start time. Right.
By early evening the problem still wasn't fixed, and the update was edited for a second time, but the time has been removed altogether. There's also an update that the problem still wasn't fixed at 6.25pm:
In all, Iain estimates he was without water supply for 16 hours, but United Utilities refused to take responsibility and pay compensation. So Iain escalated his complaint to regulators Ofwat, who referred him to the Consumer Council for Water, the recognised industry body for dealing with consumer issues. You can read their final ruling on the matter here - they side with the customer and are scathing of United Utilities, but can't act on the complaint. And that's it. Hooray once more for independent bodies created to protect the consumer.
So despite a long trail of evidence that suggests United Utilities misrepresented the issues by continuously editing their own updates, United Utilities go unpunished, without paying out a penny.
Even their own charter contradicts their actions; it reassures customers the measurement that matters is what comes out the tap, not the pressure in a pipe several miles away. The Consumer Council for Water makes it clear the two are very different, and that United Utilities simply isn't interested in considering conditions experienced by the customers. Unfortunately, short of digging a well, they've got the monopoly on water supplies and can treat consumers any way they like - especially when regulators or watchdogs are unwilling or unable to intervene.