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Friday, 22 February 2013

British Gas wins Pain English Award

Yes, that's Pain English, not Plain English, a feeble joke that I essay mere moments after learning from the Standard that Gordon Brown typically earns around £60,000 per speech following his relegation from the premiership, compared to the now-that's-more-like-it figure of £200,000 reportedly commanded by Tony Blair (who presumably charges a special premium for speeches that include verbs). Surely thirteen years of a Labour Government were intended to eliminate such relative poverty from our nation's midst?

Perhaps Mr Blair or Mr Brown could speak on my behalf to an audience of executives at British Gas, who frankly would benefit from a good talking to. I'd do it myself, if only British Gas could rustle up a sum resembling the £60,375.83 paid to Mr Brown's charitable foundation to speak in Yalta to the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, Mr Pinchuk being a Ukrainian steel magnate. Although I have to say that Mr Pinchuk has been had, as I would have spoken to his foundation in Yalta for only £60,375 and would not have asked for that annoying extra 85p that, like a small cover charge in a restaurant, always makes one feel a little bit over-charged.

Indeed, given that my political significance is, I fear, no more than 0.1% of that of Mr Gordon Brown, I would have spoken to the Crimean hordes (presumably over the telephone) for a mere £60.38, an amount that would come in handy for the payment of £69.67 that I am becoming ever-more-likely to soon disburse to the Gas Board (

British Gas emailed me yesterday to say that they "have reviewed (my)electricity account", a piece of news that thoroughly intrigued me, as I have never had a British Gas electricity account and this is about my gas account. Does your heart sing with confidence at the level of attention to detail displayed by a company that, in an email about one's gas bill, refers obliquely (oh, so very bleakly) to one's non-existent electricity account?

British Gas's latest declamation does, in fact, go into such detail about my bill(s) as to demonstrate quite convincingly that I might indeed owe them sixty-nine pounds and sixty-seven pence, and I have thanked them for that (and will presumably soon be remitting them the sum in question). But - but, I tell you, but - the previous bill appeared to me to demonstrate equally convincingly that they owed me £80.92; I must, however, be mistaken, as the email below explains what has happened in simple terms, displaying as it does the acuity, clarity, fluency and accuracy-in-written-English that one would hope for in an email from British Gas about one's disputed gas bill:

Dear Mr Harris

I'm sorry that you have to contact us again enquiring about your final bill and the payments and also for the delay in my reply.
I have reviewed your electricity account and I see that your previous invoice issued on 13 February 2013 was reversed due to the returned payments on 13 February and 15 February 2013. It shows on the bill that the payment has been included but once your bank has informed us, your previous bill was cancelled a new bill was issued adjusting the payment of £150.59 and £153.02 which you can see as an adjustment of £303.61. The current balance for your electricity account is £69.67 in debit.

Below is the calculation for the previous gas bill issued on 13 February 2012 and was reversed due to return on the payments on 13 February 2013 and 15 February 2013.

Gas bill calculation:

Bill date: 13 February 2013

Bill period: 20 September 2012 to 31 January 2013.

Amount brought forward: £339.85 (debit)

Payment received: £768.61 (credit)

Adjustment: £153.00 (this payment is the one which we have requested on 13 February 2013 which is included in the credit balance, the other payment of £150.59 is also included in the credit balance but not included in the adjustment column of your bill because it was requested on 15 February 2013 and this bill was issued on 13 February 2013.) 

Balance carried forward: £275.74 (£339.85 +£153.02 - £768.61)

Gas used: £185.55 + VAT: £9.27

Closing balance: £80.92

However, both these payments was returned, therefore we cancelled the previous bill and issued a new bill.

If you're not satisfied your enquiry has been resolved, please get in touch with me and I'll be more than happy to help you further.

However, if you're happy with what I've done you don't need to do anything and I'll close your enquiry on 7 March 2013.

If you would like to review our Complaint Handling Procedure please visit our website or alternatively, reply to my email and I will arrange to send you a copy free of charge through the post.

Thank you for contacting British Gas.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Dancing the hokey cokey with British Gas

Having forsaken my New Barnet penthouse and moved into my new home with the lovely Jacqueline (to whom I am to be married) in Whetstone, I recently closed the British Gas account at my former abode. Little did I know that this would involve my piloting a new TV game show format that's all about billing (it's called Test the Patience).

On 31 January, they emailed to say that I owed them £303.61. My entering a meter reading on 4 February sparked an email thanking me for said reading, followed on 7 February by an email to say "We're sorry, we couldn't process your meter reading", prompting a telephone conversation on 8 February in which I passed on the meter reading and was promised a new bill within two weeks, and lo, on 12 February came an email to say "Your gas bill is ready to view online" and "your account balance is £0.00."

Bitter experience had taught me to ignore this as a computer-generated false alarm and not really my bill after all, and so I waited patiently until yesterday morning, when I discovered an email saying that my bill really was apparently ready now and that they owed me £80.92, an idea that tickled me rather more than had the previous suggestion that I owed them more than three hundred quid.

I checked my payment history on their site and it added up and thus made sense for them to owe me the aforementioned £80.92 - but wait! Without actually sending me another bill or another email, and without saying anything to indicate that the bill on which they owed me £80.92 was not, ladies and gentlemen, the proverbial it, the screen changed to reveal that I now apparently owe them £67.97. Oh.

The previous bill (the one they had sent me that very same day and had told me was my bill) disappeared, the pdf of the new bill "isn't yet available...but will be ready for you within the next 24 hours" (it still isn't, incidentally) and my online payment history has evolved so that near-identical transactions now show not that they owe me eighty pounds, but that I owe them sixty-seven pounds - presumably because I didn't shout "Bank!" while the sum of £80.92 was up there on the screen.

A telephone call elicited the information that, yes, someone had made a mistake in calculating the bill, hence it having later been amended - without that amendment generating an email to say "Here's another new bill" or "Oops, sorry, we've made a mistake, your bill's wrong and we're very sorry; heaven forfend that such a thing should ever happen again - Andre, free drinks for the table that was given the incorrect bill!" Is it cricket for them to email me a bill and then change that self-same bill without explanation and without even alerting me to the change?

It is gloriously byzantine - £194.82 in Gas Charges was, apparently, notionally debited on 13 February, with the charges reversed on 15 February and then on the very same day debited again, all without my raising any queries about the charges concerned. The direct debit payments that I had cancelled by agreement flit between the Debits and Credits columns like - like a thing that flits a lot, very fast. If maths in schools was this exciting, then Mr Michael Gove would have far less difficulty in interesting the nation's young people in the pursuit of this most noble of academic disciplines.

I rather like British Gas, and their staff are always very pleasant and helpful, but their methods for calculating bills appear to be so complicated as to render it near impossible to ascertain who owes what to whom. Having recently found it easy to complete a tax return without the aid even of an accountant, I find it faintly enervating that the supposedly simple sorting out of my gas bill should apparently necessitate the hiring of a team of Florida election lawyers. I might indeed owe British Gas sixty-seven pounds, but I'd rather know this for certain before handing the money over.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Ward, Wiesel, Chomsky - and Carmichael

There's an old joke in which a beggar asks a distinguished gentleman for money in the street, and the distinguished gentleman pompously replies: "'Neither a borrower nor a lender be' - William Shakespeare." To which the beggar responds: "'F**k you' - David Mamet."

I am reminded of this joke by the fact that, while David Ward has called in aid a quotation in his defence from Noam Chomsky (, Mr Ward has inadvertently omitted to also inform his readers that Elie Wiesel, whom Mr Ward had previously also quoted in his own defence (, has said: "Although he (Mr Ward) quotes me correctly, I am outraged that he uses my words at the same time he utters shameless slanders on the State of Israel" (

Leaving aside the fact that Noam Chomsky's 9/11 nincompoopery has left him widely discredited (, and also leaving aside the fact that Mr Chomsky's eminence in semiotics (not that I am antisemiotic) does not especially qualify him to comment on the specifics of what is and isn't considered acceptable language in British political discourse, I note with sad amusement that Mr Ward informs us on his website that Mr Chomsky was due to speak via video link at some ghastly-sounding London conference of "Not in my name!" people, alongside a bunch of illiberal Labour MPs and Respect Party types (

As a liberal and a Liberal Democrat, I support such a conference no more than I would support a conference held by Tory right-wingers of the Bring Back Maggie variety - yes, the Lib Dems opposed the Iraq War, but that is about all we have in common with the collection of History Man stereotypes here gathered (or there gathered) to hear Chomsky last weekend.

As for Mr Ward's asking Jewish News ( if his comments about "the Jews" would have been more acceptable if he had said not "the Jews", but "the Jewish community" - I genuinely assumed, upon reading that, that Mr Ward was joking in an attempt to score a rhetorical point, demonstrating the seriousness with which he was (not) taking accusations that he has caused serious offence to some members of a minority community.

Not once did it occur to me that Mr Ward seriously thinks that, if an MP talks about "the Jews" in a manner that could imply that he might mean "all Jews, including even the Jewish community over here", then it would have been 'better' if he had said not "the Jews", but "the Jewish community". It wouldn't have been better, it (obviously) would have been worse, and I am truly astonished that Mr Ward might suggest that he seriously thinks otherwise.

All Lib Dems should read this excellent Jewish News article ( by Liberal Democrat Chief Whip (and Government Deputy Chief Whip) Alistair Carmichael, which represents the true voice of the Liberal Democrats. I write here in a personal capacity.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Ward abroad (and in Guardian)

Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack writes ( that the absence of Lib Dem MP David Ward from Wednesday's Commons vote on equal marriage was the result of his being "abroad on Parliamentary business"; my own absence from the vote was the result of my "sadly not ever having been elected an MP in the first place".

It is thrilling to think that, had I not been so careless as to mislay the roughly twenty thousand additional votes that might have swept me to victory in Hendon, then I too might this week have been abroad on the same Parliamentary business as detained Mr Ward, perhaps sharing his bivouac in Borneo, Bogota, Boston or whichever foreign place it is that he has been emailing Jewish News from (, said emails presumably indicating either that Mr Ward has returned and is no longer abroad after all, or that he is the owner of a smart phone.

Anyway, before embarking on his business abroad (an expression that somehow drips with Wildean disdain: "I do not wish to hear that you have business abroad, Mr Worthington," or is it (with an exclamation mark) a Brian Rix farce, or perhaps a song by Flanders and Swann), Mr Ward found time to be interviewed by the Guardian, an organ that had, prior to Mr Ward's recent fall into the stormy teacup that has got him into such hot water (perhaps it needs more milk?)given him the same amount of attention as had other national newspapers, that being "pretty much no attention at all".

The Guardian, of all papers, asked Mr Ward the questions that needed asking, and Mr Ward's answers explain better than I ever could why his words, and the sentiments underlying them, are so utterly mistaken and wrong, so do read this piece and consider what it says about his views and what he says about himself, especially if you are a Liberal Democrat of that depressing variety which still actually likes the Guardian: