An elderly Portsmouth couple have been left in the lurch after they discovered that the free solar panels and insulation they signed up for under the government’s ‘Green Deal’ have landed them with unexpected 23-year credit repayments to their energy supplier.
Fred and Beryl Bardock, both in their 80s, were one of many hundreds of homeowners who were mis-sold solar panels through a company called Home Energy Lifestyle Management Systems Ltd based in Glasgow.
A Streetwise investigation has revealed the firm was previously fined by regulators for dodgy sales practices but went into liquidation without paying the fines last March.
That leaves the Burdocks with a £7,500 debt to the energy supplier.
HELMS specialised in selling solar panels to older people whose energy bills were low.
Salesmen told them the panels were free, but that was misleading because they were required to sign up to a credit agreement with their electricity company to pay for them.
The idea behind the Green Deal scheme was to give loans to people for energy improvements which were paid back through their electricity bills.
The theory was that electricity generated by the panels and exported back to their electricity company – the feed-in tariff – would result in lower bills.
But people like the Bardocks who had small electricity bills weren’t paying enough to cancel out the cost of the panels, so ended up with even higher bills.
Government minister Greg Barker praised HELMS while the flagship Green Deal was on offer despite mounting complaints about its sales methods. The firm was responsible for selling more than a quarter, some 4,800 of the deals. The scheme was terminated abruptly after the last election.
Fred agreed with the hundreds of complainants that the firm’s sales reps did not show him papers to confirm they were taking out a loan or credit agreement.
This has left the couple saddled with debt they can never hope to repay during the remainder of their lifetime.
He told us their problems all started when they received a call from the firm out of the blue.
He said: ‘This guy then turned up at the door and we got an hour’s sales pitch.
‘He said we’d be stupid not to take advantage of the government-backed scheme as there was no cost to us – the panels and insulation were free.’
Beryl, 80, signed the paperwork which she believed was simply to authorise the work to start, but when their next quarterly electricity bill dropped on the doormat they were startled to discover they’d been tied in to paying nearly £25 per month for 23 years.
The couple had also been persuaded to sign over their feed-in tariff payments to PV Solar Investments Ltd, of which HELMS’ sole director Robert Skillen is one of the directors.
Fred, 83, a former insurance rep added: ‘We were led to believe we’d save a fortune on our electricity bills, but the reverse has happened. Since we’ve had the panels the cost has literally gone through the roof.’
‘When we first made a complaint to HELMS they told us not to worry as the debt was not actually ours. I was furious.’
Fred told us he’d complained to the Energy Saving Trust, Trading Standards, and the Energy Ombudsman, and asked Streetwise to warn others.
When Streetwise looked into the matter to see if we could help, the extent of the alleged sales practices and chaos soon became apparent.
The Financial Ombudsman Service had received 70 complaints, Trading standards and the Energy Savings Trust between them a further 400.
HELMS was fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner’s office last September for making more than six million nuisance sales calls.
A month later, the Department of Energy and Climate Change fined the firm another £10,500 but that was two years after they first started receiving complaints and just £10,000 of the £210,000 in fines was paid before the company went into liquidation.
Our calls to Mr Skillen were not returned, but he’d previously denied that the firm had engaged in misleading sales practices.
He told industry regulators that all clients had received copies of the Green Deal documentation, and those that had agreed to transfer their feed-in tariff had been told how to reacquire it.
The Green Deal Ombudsman, John Baguley, confirmed he was also investigating HELMS after receiving 50 complaints.
He said: ‘The scenario of your reader is not untypical of the other complaints we have received.
‘We can award up to £25,000 for each complainant’s consumer detriment.’
The Department of Energy and Climate Change felt unable to give Streetwise a statement but insisted they’d taken the allegations seriously by fining HELMS in 2015.
They also told us the only person who could insist the credit agreements with the energy providers were cancelled was Amber Rudd, MP, the Secretary of State.
Streetwise is campaigning on behalf of the Bardocks to release them from the credit agreement.
Other readers who may have been mis-sold solar panels by HELMS salesmen are urged to get in touch for help and advice.