Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Excuse me while I bend over, I'm just being screwed by Swalec.

I don't know how many people in the UK currently or have ever used prepayment electricity meters. It's not like it's something people will readily admit as it carries a certain amount of shame. It's a dirty secret, being poor. I have one. I have it because it's the default state of things in social housing. I'm in a housing association place, it was fitted when I moved in. I was informed, when I enquired, that there would be a significant charge if I wanted to change the way I paid for my electricity supply, so I have had to put up with paying a higher price for my energy than those who can afford to pay more. And that's just financially. There's a small cost to my soul every time I have to hand over my little plastic key to be charged at the newsagent, too. I feel utterly stigmatised by it, just like the period I was unemployed when my daughter was small, and I had milk tokens to pay for part of my shopping. But I digress.. where was I? Oh yes, little plastic keys.

I'm not a particularly organised girl. My mum and dad used to go crazy about the cost of all my lost keys when I was growing up. I forget to have the toll ready when I drive over the Cleddau Bridge to work. I leave my phone at home at least once a week and get home to text messages that I'm too late to answer in any useful way. But somehow, miraculously, I have managed over five years without losing my stupid little plastic electric meter key. So I didn't know what to do when I reached for my keys as the credit ran out and the lights went off at my house after work tonight, only to find the damn thing had fallen off somewhere. I hunted through my handbag and the car and didn't find it. Boo. I felt thankful for the luck I had in at least having a functioning fully-charged phone and laptop, and set about finding a number for Swalec to ask them for a replacement key before the end of office hours. Because I've never lost a key before, I didn't know what happens next.

Apparently what happens next is you get shafted by the company who own your meter.

I was given the choice between waiting for a replacement key to arrive in the post, or having one of their engineers come and deliver me one the same day. Evidently, with a six-year-old in the house and a freezer full of food, getting an electricity supply back on would be best not left for three days, so as I said to the lady on the phone, I was faced with no choice really. She chirpily clued me in that there would be a £66 charge for a replacement to be delivered. As if £66 was not very much money for a three inch piece of plastic. Of course, in the greater scheme of things, like for example when weighed against a balance sheet like that of a company their size, £66 really isn't very much money. But for a single mum on a low wage, it's well.. I have £2.50 in my bank account right now. When I told her I wouldn't be able to pay the charge, she maintained her breezy oh-that's-cool tone of voice as she told me that they would generously allow me to spread the cost by applying a charge of £3 per week to my meter (for what would be about five months, I pointed out to her, listening to her count on her fingers so see if I was correct). Er, I already pay over the odds for the electric I need every week, I really can't afford for that cost to go up. "I'm sure you won't really notice the cost;" she blithely continued, "it is added daily not weekly in fact, so you only pay by pennies at a time". Well fuck me, I hadn't thought of it like that. You're only taking about 43p a day from me for the privilege of owning a piece of plastic that entitles me to buy something from you when I need to. That's fair. I get it. That's just like someone taking some of my lunch money for the privilege of not being beaten up.

She attempted to justify the cost. "If you could wait for a replacement key to arrive in the post, that would of course be free. We can get one of our area engineers to come out to you, but they would charge us for booking that appointment". I'm sorry, run that by me again? The Swalec guy, being paid by the hour to drive the Swalec van full of tools and bits to fix your shit, including a box full of meter keys, yes? HE will charge YOU. The Swalec lady on the telephone. OK then. So you both work for the same company, but the charge isn't one from your company to me, but me covering the cost to your department of hiring your company's own engineer. I see. With perfect clarity.

She then offered me the secret difficult-caller third bonus option -- for me to drive to pick up a new key instead. From their centre in Cardiff, a mere 90 miles from where I live.

I give up. An extra £3 a week expense for nothing it is then. "Sod the expense, feed the cat another goldfish" as my mum would say. It's not like I can't afford it, right?

Edited 14/07/10 21.52 to add:

After posting this account of my problem, and contacting Swalec on Twitter, I received a phone call this afternoon during which the following points were raised in reply to the above:

  • Although the engineers who deliver replacement meter keys drive Swalec vans, I'm told they work for Western Power Distribution, who charge Swalec £66 for each callout and this was the cost passed on to me.
  • Charges for changing from a key to a credit meter are a thing of the past as Swalec reviewed some of their procedures a couple of years ago.
  • While they were growing a small amount of social responsibility, they also reviewed tariffs and set the prepayment tariff at somewhere around the median of the rates paid by credit meter customers, with no standing charge.
  • In view of the fact I had never lost or damaged my key in five years, £66 seems unnecessarily punitive, so they are going to waive half of the replacement fee.

All in all I'd say if you want to talk to Swalec and get any sense out of them, best thing you can do is skip the callcentre and contact @YourSWALEC on Twitter. Thanks guys.


Simon Proctor said...

I remember having a payment meter in one flat, luckily it used little cards that you could buy in batches from the corner shop so no keys to lose.
I hated the dammed thing with a passion.

Adam Sampson said...

The other failure mode of that system is when you've got the key, but the meter refuses to read it. I remember one night a few years ago spent with nothing in the house but the the freezer and one light bulb turned on, waiting for an engineer to arrive to replace the meter. Again.

I'd look into how much the charge is for replacing it with a regular meter (I've done that twice, and not been charged either time -- but that was in Kent). Given how much more expensive paying by key is, getting a regular meter will pay for itself fairly quickly...