A number of Streetwise readers have contacted us after we disclosed hundreds of people had been flannelled into believing a government ‘Green Deal’ energy-saving scheme entitled them to free solar panel installations that would slash electricity bills.
The idea behind the government’s £240m ‘Green Deal’ flagship policy was to give people loans for energy improvements which would be paid back in instalments via their energy provider.
The scheme turned out to be a flop and was abruptly withdrawn after the 2015 General Election.
Last week a report by the powerful House of Commons Public Accounts Committee accused the Department for Energy and Climate Change of presiding over a poorly-designed and badly promoted shambles just waiting to happen.
We waded into the solar money-saving panels story after octogenarian Portsmouth pensioners Fred and Beryl Bardock told us that a salesman from Home Energy Lifestyle Management Systems (Helms) had saddled them with a 23-year debt they’d been struggling to repay.
The Bardocks claim the firm’s salesmen told them that harnessing the energy from the sun would enable them to generate enough money from the government-backed scheme – the feed-in tariff – to sell the surplus energy back to their electricity company and dramatically slash their bills.
Our investigation revealed they were one of many UK households who say they were led to believe their electricity bills wouldn’t rise because the electricity generated by the photovoltaic panels would more than cover the cost of financing them.
Helms was initially praised by government ministers but abruptly shut down last March following a deluge of complaints to regulators about misleading sales practices and making millions of nuisance phone calls. The firm folded with £200,000 in outstanding unpaid fines.
Former company boss Richard Skillen said the firm was forced to shut up shop because the government had progressively reduced the return from the feed-in tariff, leaving it unable to survive.
The ‘Green Deal’ feed-in tariff was initially set by government at about 40p per unit of electricity generated, but was dramatically slashed over the two years the scheme was up and running to just 4p.
After reading the Streetwise article a number of readers contacted us claiming they’d been stitched up by Helms salesmen who had cold-called them with an offer they were told they’d be silly to refuse.
Disabled pensioners Ken and Susan Baker, both 71, from Bridgemary, Gosport, care for two disabled sons. The fixed-income family were typically knocked up out of the blue by a Helms salesman and claim they were told to expect significant savings on their electricity bills if they signed up.
Ken said: ‘Two or three salesmen were going around the estate. I was given all the bumph, some of which I understood and some I didn’t, and it seemed a good scheme being government-backed.’
But despite having the panels installed and Southern Electric activating the agreement, the Bakers’ monthly direct debit electricity payments unexpectedly jumped from £85 to £111 – an increase of £26.
Streetwise ploughed through the 118 pages of paperwork a trusting but confused Ken had been given. Almost 20 per cent of it was ‘small print’ terms and conditions which would require a lawyer to interpret. It included ‘guesstimates’ of how much electricity the panels would generate, and a 23-year £12,000 credit agreement, £4,000 of which was interest repayments.
Another Helms customer, David Boyce, 59, of Portsmouth, says he was told the panels would generate free electricity during the day, and anything left over would go to reducing his bills.
He didn’t understand all the small print but only discovered he’d signed a credit agreement when Southern Electric increased his monthly payments by £32.
‘Helms reps just conned me’ he said. ‘If I’d known I’d never have done it.’
A furious Sheila Day contacted Streetwise claiming she signed up for the panels only after a Helms salesman gave her and her partner a categorical assurance they wouldn’t cost anything and they’d benefit from cheaper electricity bills.
The elderly Portsmouth couple discovered they’d been taken in when their expectations were unexpectedly dashed when they turned out to be wrong.
They joined about 70 other people who have registered a formal complaint with the Financial Services Ombudsman (FSO).
A Havant reader, who wished to remain anonymous, told Streetwise he’d complained about Helms mis-selling to the FSO after the firm went bust. He says he was advised that complaints could only be considered if he’d first complained directly to Helms.
But the FSO confirmed people could still register a complaint even after the firm had gone to the wall.
A spokesman said: ‘Where a firm has entered liquidation, the liquidators should be handling complaints and once the complaint decision has been sent to the consumer they can come to us.’
Streetwise is campaigning to ensure readers who have good reason to believe they were mis-sold the panels are compensated.
In the meantime we asked Southern Electric what measures were in place to help vulnerable elderly readers cope with the elevated bills they were struggling to pay.
Company spokesman Edward Shone explained that Southern Electric’s role in the ‘Green Deal’ arrangement was simply to administer the repayments as they were not a party to the Helms contracts.
He said: ‘While we are unable to offer any direct help regarding the contract we have assistance on offer for customers who are having difficulty more generally. If customers are worried about their bills they should contact us to see what help we may be able to offer.’
Streetwise also asked the Department of Energy and Climate Change what help people caught up in the ‘Green Deal’ solar panel fiasco could expect from government, but did not get a response.