The advert begins with a dad pointing a torch at a boiler and filling a hot water bottle for his child.
Then a voiceover starts: ‘Boiler playing up? Dreading waking up to a freezing home and an unexpected repair bill? Not when you’re covered by British Gas HomeCare.’
But the energy giant’s latest TV campaign offers little comfort to the hundreds of thousands of customers being forced to wait weeks for repairs.
Money Mail has heard from dozens of furious homeowners who pay around £300 a year for the company’s HomeCare plan.
Abandoned: British Gas HomeCare insurance should cover the cost of boiler and thermostat repairs and annual services. Yet customers are struggling to get an appointment
There are more than 3.5million policyholders, and the insurance should cover the cost of boiler and thermostat repairs and annual services.
You can also pay extra to cover your home electrics, drains and plumbing.
Yet many customers have been told they must wait weeks for an appointment, leaving some families without heating and hot water.
Others say they can’t get through on the phone and are repeatedly let down when engineers don’t turn up as promised. And some have gone nearly two years without an annual boiler service.
British Gas says it had to cancel all but essential jobs in the third national lockdown, including most boiler services.
But experts accuse it of using Covid as an excuse. They say the real reason for the delays is recent strike action.
The union GMB claims at least 170,000 homes are stuck in a queue for repairs after thousands of workers downed tools earlier this year. British Gas disputes this figure.
Despite the backlog, British Gas is offering new HomeCare customers gift cards worth up to £75 if they sign up before May 10.
Now experts say families caught out by delays could be in line for hefty payouts.
British Gas promises repairs or visits for HomeCare customers within a ‘reasonable time’ unless something ‘beyond [its] control makes that impossible’.
But consumer law specialist Gary Rycroft says the current long delays could pave the way for compensation claims potentially worth hundreds of pounds each.
‘For anyone without hot water or heating, I would say anything more than a week is not at all a reasonable time to wait for repairs,’ he says. ‘And for vulnerable people such as the elderly, that time-frame should be less.
‘The current strike by engineers puts British Gas in potential breach of its own contract, because you could say the proper human resources management of its workforce is very much a matter that should be within its control.’
The union GMB claims at least 170,000 homes are stuck in a queue for repairs after thousands of workers downed tools earlier this year. British Gas disputes this figure
Mr Rycroft says customers could take their cases to the Financial Ombudsman Service and claim a year’s refund, plus the cost of hiring other engineers, and potentially more for inconvenience.
British Gas’s terms also state that it may reschedule repairs and visits if non-essential travel is banned under government guidelines.
But Mr Rycroft, a partner at Joseph A. Jones & Co, says lockdown rules shouldn’t stop engineers doing their jobs, as they are key workers.
Baroness Ros Altmann’s mother had to call British Gas about her boiler on Monday. Although she has a HomeCare plan, the 89-year-old was told she would have to wait four weeks for an engineer.
‘My mother has been paying for this plan for years,’ says the former pensions minister. ‘At the very least, British Gas needs to offer refunds to customers who are unable to benefit from their cover.’
In late January, retired building manager Peter Auger, from Windsor, woke up without hot water or heating.
The 67-year-old called British Gas HomeCare, but was met with ‘endless’ voicemails saying the pandemic meant that staff were unable to speak to him.
Peter and his wife Anne, 63, had paid £17.50 a month since September 2020, and before that were on an even costlier British Gas plan for several years.
Eventually they were told the earliest an engineer could come out would be on February 16, leaving them without heating for more than three weeks.
The couple had to fork out £160 on the day, when an engineer told them their timer needed replacing. He put in place a temporary solution but said British Gas would need to replace it.
Despite dozens of phone calls and many promised appointments that failed to go ahead, the couple are still waiting to have their timer replaced. Anne says: ‘We just felt helpless. It’s impossible to get anyone on the phone.’
Landlady Lorraine Mawer, from Bedfordshire, has been paying £5.50 a month to British Gas for more than five years as part of a basic plan that includes central heating breakdown cover.
Sales drive: Despite the backlog, British Gas is offering new HomeCare customers gift cards worth up to £75 if they sign up before May 10
But when her tenants reported having no hot water or heating last Friday, her letting agent contacted British Gas and was told the earliest appointment available was on April 22, leaving the tenants without heating for 20 days.
Lorraine says: ‘British Gas is taking money for a service it is not providing. In the end, my letting agent had to send some heaters round to my tenants. We then had to pay for a local plumber, who visited on Easter Sunday.’
Grumblings over boiler services not being carried out were already rife before the pandemic.
Complaints website Resolver has received 1,844 gripes about boilers in the past year, but the average number of monthly cases rose from about 70 in December to 150 in January and February.
Martyn James, of Resolver, says: ‘Often these kinds of plan are not worth the paper they are written on, as there is so little clarity in the small print.
‘British Gas should set out in their documents how long customers should expect to wait for a visit and state what it will do if it cannot meet this deadline.’
British Gas customers have also vented their fury after seeing their premiums hiked at renewal.
Review site Trustpilot is littered with complaints about the company. GMB says 200,000 annual service visits had been cancelled following 12 days of strike action by the end of January.
It says these numbers have since risen ‘significantly’ as there have now been 42 days of strike action in total.
British Gas says annual service visits are being delayed and it will clear the backlog shortly, adding that it has now resumed non-essential jobs.
It claims it is reaching vulnerable customers with boiler breakdowns on the same day, and non-vulnerable customers within two to three days.
A spokesman adds: ‘We’ve had to rearrange some annual service visits, primarily driven by our response to the Covid-19 lockdown, to safeguard the health and safety of our staff and customers.
‘During the lockdown we have focused on immediate threat to health, life or safety, including heating breakdowns and uncontrollable water leaks.’
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