Computerised utility bills
As I review these paragraphs (sometime
in 2000) there's been another scare announcement about soaring
Council Rates Bills. What sickens me is that recently our Local
Council scrapped all their computers and re-equipped with flat
screen display types at what must have been a gi-normous cost.
It was when these things were still extremely expensive, nearer
£1000 than £100. Who pays for this?
Many years ago there used to be lots
of jobs for people who could use pencil and paper.
Gas, electric, telephone bills and rates
demands were simple things.
Our rates demand in Merseyside in 1969
said, on a piece of paper about 5 inches by 4 inches, "Rateable
value £19, rates 11:7d in the pound, Rates payable £11:0:1d".
I might add that this included water rates for which, in this
area of the New Forest we now receive two sizeable extra bills.
Now, before I get a council rates bill
I have to provide a set of annual accounts within a week, and
usually after ten attempts a rate bill of astronomical proportions
is agreed and paid. Accompanying each communication is a mountain
of paper, some of it printed in many colours and lots of glossy
brochures from departments demonstrating, typically by that very
act, the amount of MY MONEY they are wasting.
The old bill was set out on a typewriter
from figures produced by clerks with pencils and paper, and as
calculators were rare and computers only used for detecting Russian
planes, no doubt they were using charts full of numbers from
which they picked out the appropriate amount to pay. I imagine
it was all done in a minute or two, and bearing in mind there
were about a million people living in the City of Liverpool a
good many people earned their pay by using pencil and paper and
I've started using my computer to check
my utility bills and to attempt to work out whether a change
to a different supplier will save money.
I can reveal to you that it is well
nigh impossible to determine this unless you have a degree in
mathematics (which incidentally I have) AND you own a fully operational
Take the electricity bill. I haven't
had a meter reading for as long as I can remember. A computer
somewhere decides how much I have used and sends me a bill. Sometimes
the figure is so far from the mark I'd have to remortgage the
house to pay it so I have to ring them and put them right. The
utility companies are making money on the back of the consumer
who invariably pays too much; the extra cash we pay attracts
interest for the utility company. It's about as close to the
definition of THEFT as makes no difference. "Intent to deprive",
certainly has some substance in relation to a consumer's lost
interest as the utility company will not countenance paying interest
on the cash they have overcharged. (I wrote that last year...
last week I got a letter from one of my suppliers saying they
were paying some money, they'd taken through overcharging, into
my bank! Maybe they read what I'd put and got a guilty conscience?)
No sooner do I figure out how I am being
charged then the company works out a new method of billing me!
The rolling account method of billing, coupled with perpetual
"estimates" makes it incredibly difficult to work out
just how much I'm actually paying for what I use.
I got the millionth phone call the other
day from yet another utility company telling me how much I can
save by switching to them, I respond by asking them to demonstrate
how they can do this. They usually ask me from whom I get my
gas or whatever. I respond with "If you don't already know
how can you tell me you can save me money? I tell them "Southern
Electric". "No.. who supplies your gas", they
say. "Southern Electric I said". "Oh.. how much
do you use per month?". "If you don't already know..
how can you tell me you can save me money I ask?"... and
so it goes on. "How much do you charge for a cubic metre",
I ask. "We sell gas by the kilowatt", is the response...
"What's the calorific value of your gas", I ask...
at this point the person usually gives up.
This time however the chap, who sounded
more Croation than English, said his computer wasn't working
and he couldn't tell me. I asked him what the rattling noise
was while he was talking to me, if it wasn't a computer keyboard,
and he pretended not to understand and said he'd ring me back.
If he did he'd changed his job and was now selling double glazing!
Have you tried to understand your phone
bill? The BT phone bill has to be seen to be believed! It's just
about the worst designed and presented bill that's ever been
devised in the history of mankind.
My phone bill, typically of April 1986,
was about 5" by 5" and its content was as clear as
could be, two meter readings, price per unit and a total .
However as soon as BT started fiddling
with computers the bill (and no doubt BT as well!) started to
grow in size and soon a third decimal place appeared, the word
"Bill" became "politically incorrect", and
was replaced in 1989 by a "Statement" attached to the
bill. When this later word was dropped, for some time, no title
appeared on the bill until the words "Telephone Account"
popped up. The number of attached sheets started to grow in number,
getting physically larger as time progressed until Jan 93 when
the word "Statement" reappeared and all pages went
to A4 in size. Now we get 5 pages of A4 including mysterious
entries such as "Total Customer Option Charges £0.00".
Minus signs are used willy nilly and the end result is absolutely
useless in terms of understandability. Am I wrong but shouldn't
"discount" be a positive number?
Since I penned the above BT have changed
their bill yet again (in fact a year later as I re-read this
a NEW new-style BT bill has arrived April 2003). It's much the
same as before which was better but still hopeless. They've STILL
got their plus and minus signs wrong. When it comes to presentation
it's all very well having beautiful artwork but it costs money.
Our money! The number of pages is still growing. The three decimal
places of intricate detail may be of passing interest but I'm
sure 99.99% of recipients could manage with just a single page
summary sheet. Just think how many million pages are produced
in a year! How many trees does that represent? How much colour
ink and.... how many people employed to produce the end result!
Yet another try at getting their bills
right! August 2003 and a little note accompanying the BT bill
tells me that this time they've finally got it right! What they
really mean is that they're increasing the size of the font of
the money part of the bill and the main heading is increased
in size even more. However... they are still using the nonsensical
minus signs... My credit balance is minus £56.49. Do I
owe them or do they owe me? What they call "benefits"
are also minus signed. Get your act together BT! When I see that
minus £84 has been deducted from my bill
(sorry "statement"), my logic tells me that £84
has been added.
However... take a tip from me
Mr.BT MD. You do not need to print your bills in colour. Plain
old black will do nicely and would save pots of money. And five
sides of paper surely would condense to a single sheet if you
kept the typing smaller and information to the minimum. The increase
in the amount of information you supply will eventually lead
to you printing out my actual conversations. Do you realise that
we do not need to see the costs down to a tenth of a penny! I
can live without being told I accrued a benefit of minus 1.3
pennies when I spoke to my friend in Burley last month. And finally.
Ordinary customers shouldn't have to bother with VAT. Prices
should be inclusive, cutting down on printing and showing real
At the time I left the Defence Industry
there were more staff in the Finance Department than in the Engineering
Another round of Council
Tax bills... the one dated 14th
May 2001 is totally wrong. The one dated 17th is OK but I had
to ring them up to get it. Nothing important.. at least in terms
of New Forest finances.. a mere error of £1,341.90
but to me quite serious. Do their staff ever check what they
do? Clearly not from the evidence. How many people actually test
their bills for accuracy? I suggest that everyone should do so!
This time there are four separate envelopes containing loads
of sheets of paper. All second class stamped for second class
citizens. One asked for a document that I'd actually had photocopied
by one of their staff. Have they mislaid this or will they blame
their computer? This is the authority that changed over to flat-screen
monitors when their retail price was £700 each.
Ending on an up-beat... our electricity bill is quite high, something
like £100 per month (2003-2004) and our gas bill also as
we cook with it and have gas central heating. One day I got a
call from someone in New Delhi, I think it must have been as
I could only vaguely understand what she was saying. It turned
out that now I'm approaching the government age for retirement
that not only can I get free cavity wall insulation, a new jacket
for our hot water tank and all our doors and windows draughtproofed
FREE, I can now get unmetered gas and electricity.
I asked the young lady if it was true and said we paid about
£100 per month just for electricity but she said that for
about £67 we could use as much as we liked... that's gas
and electricity! Anyway I didn't pursue the matter as it seemd
too good to be true but a few days later I got a call from someone
in the UK saying that I'd signed up for Staywarm and they were
just calling to confirm the changeover date. Now we no longer
have to pay for the gas and electricity we use, just a fixed
amount per month. Needless to say we are staying warm. I suppose
someone will eventually work out the costs of the scheme and
cancel it sooner or later but for the moment it's nice being
warm. I even fixed my central heating which hasn't worked properly
And now the downbeat... 2014
We stayed with Staywarm for 11 years.
After around 5 years the business was sold to one of the big
players. No longer was the scheme to be for impoverished pensioners..
now it was to become a method of extracting lots of cash from
gullible old people. The £67 per month rose year on year
(eventually fourfold) and then was based on previous years consumption
with units at full price... so in order to get value (because
bills were fixed and issued on unmetered fuel) we used more and
more. Eventually the scheme was withdrawn because pensioners
on Staywarm were clearly getting TOO warm. We were to be switched
to a special scheme designed for pensioners. Alas this never
happened because Mr Cameron said there were too many schemes.
The special pensioners scheme bit the dust before the switchover
and now we all just pay for what we use... and of course pullovers
and scarfs are the order of the day... and our heated garage
and conservatory are now freezing.