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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.

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