Sunday, 2 December 2012

To regulate or not to regulate (Leveson mix)

The objections to implementing the recommendations of the Leveson report seen in the press over the last few days seem mainly to fall into the following categories.

1. Conflating the issue of freedom of press with freedom of speech, and then arguing the sacredness of the freedom of speech, quoting something like the Pussy Riot trial, or Mugabe, or claiming that the UK is a shining beacon for the freedom of speech in the rest of the world, and that government control of the press will undermine that.
2. Saying that what is being proposed is statutory regulation of the press whereas what is actually being proposed is statutory regulation of a body that guarantees the independence of regulation of the press.
3. Saying that David Cameron (or the government) would have a direct say in the regulation of the press, whereas what is actually being proposed is regulation that entirely excludes the government from the regulation of the press.

4.  Saying that Shami Chakrabarti (director of liberty) objects to Ofcom control of a press regulator and therefore the whole of Leveson is an attack on human rightsl;

Let's have a look at what Leveson says.  This is taken from the executive summary of Leveson Volume 1, which can be found here.

  • 70. These incentives form an integral part of the recommendation, as without them it is difficult, given past practic and statements that have been made as recently as this summer, to see what would lead some in the industry to be willing to become part of what would be genuinely independent regulation.  It also leads to what some will describe as the most controversial part of my recommendations.  In order to give effect to the incentives that I have outlined, it is essential that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system and facilitate its recognition in legal processes.

  • 71. It is worth being clear what this legislation would not do.  The legislation wuld not establish a body to regulate the press: it would be up to the press to come forward with their own body that meets the criteria laid down.  The legislation would not give any rights to Parliament, to the Government, or to any regulatory (or other) body to prevent newspapers from publishing any manterial whatsoever.  Nor would it give any rights to these entitites to require newspapers to publish any material except insofar as it would require the recognised self-regulatory body to have the power to direct the placement and prominence of corrections and apologies in respect of information found, by that body, to require them.

  • 72. What would the legislation achieve?  Three things.  First, it would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Governmemt to protect the freedom of the press.  Second, it would provide an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and continue to be met; in the Report, I recommend that this is done by Ofcom.  Third, by recognising the new body, it would validate its standards code and the arbitral system sufficient to justify the the beneifits in law that would flow to those who subscribed; these could relate to data protection and the approach of the court to various issues concerning accceptable practice, in addition to costs consequences if appropriate alternative disupute resolution is available.

  • 73. Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.  What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met by the system in order for publishers to take advantage of the benefits arising as a result of membership.

  • 74. In the light of all that has been said, I must recognise the possibility that the industry could fail to rise to this challenge and be unable or unwilling to establish a system of independent self-regulation that meets the criteria.  I have made it clear that I firmly believe it to be in the best interest of the public and the industry that it should indeed accept the challenge.  What is more, given the public entitlement to some accountability of the press, I do not think that either the victims or the public would accept the outcome if the industry did not grasp this opportunity.  Neither do I think the public would find it acceptable if I were to overlook the consequences of the industry doing so.

  • 75. For the sake of completeness I have therefore set out in the Report the options that I believe would be open to the Government to pursue, and some views on the potential way forward, in that regrettable event:  these include requiring Ofcom to act as a backstop regulator for those not prepared to join such a scheme.  I have made no recommendation in relation to this situation, nor do any of the options in this pragraph amount to an outcome that I want to see.
(Emboldening done by me).

This, I think, effectively deals with objections 2 and 3 above - if anyone says that Leveson's recommendations are for the regulation of the press or that they would imply government control of the press, they're lying.  Please feel free to point them at the Leveson report itself.

Objection 1 - that what is proposed is the same as taking away freedom of speech - is risible.  You are not free to shout fire in a crowded theatre.  It is already illegal to freely publish lies about people (libel laws).

Objection 4 is a misrepresention of what Shami Chakrabarti has actually said.  In paragraph 72, Leveson clearly says that the independent recognition of the work of the independent press regulator could be done by Ofcom, but he does not state that it must be done by Ofcom.  Chakrabarti has said that "she supported an independent regulator but believed it would be possible for a judge, rather than Ofcom, to determine whether the new regulator was fulfilling its goal".  In other words, she believes that Liberty would be content with Leveson's proposal for a statutory underpinning of an independent press regulator, but believes that the judiciary would be sufficient to determine whether or not such a regulator was meeting its goals.   What she does object to is Ofcom directly regulating those members of the press who refuse to join an independent regulatory body - the fallback position that Leveson moots in paragraph 74 and 75 above. 

So there you go.  If you cut and paste from the parts of this article quoted from the Leveson report, please refer back to the URL presenting the report:

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Food banks and food rights

I think this is a consumer rights issue.  It's certainly a human rights issue.

So, I went to Tesco today.  I do it automatically on a Saturday but, as I am now restocking the restock piles, and am shortly to start restocking the restocking of the restockng piles, I do wonder why I do it.  I probably go because I can handwrite shopping lists on my new Android smart phone, and then rub the items out by hand as I find them, and this rocks and makes me feel as if I have joined the twenty first century; handwriting shopping lists!  They'll be inventing somethign that doesn't use batteries next, and calling it, oh, I don't know, paper.

Anyway, when I got to Tesco, a sad faced man in his mid-fifties stopped in front of me as I was going through the doorway.  I mean, really intrusively.  I couldn't go forward without talking to him.  He was in the way. I couldn't shake my head and carry on because social convention says that you are not supposed to use your shopping trolley to run someone over.  He was using social convention to hijack my time.

"Are you going to buy any of these items today?" he asked, handing me a list. 

I checked out his bib, the heading of the leaflet, etc., without taking the leaflet.  It was a food bank.  This made me angry (see below).

"I can't read the list," I said. 

"I can read it out to you," he said. 

"I just want to go shopping," I said.  "I don't want to listen to the list.  You are in my way." 

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry," he said, and stepped aside.  I went into the shop, fuming, and feeling guilty.

So, I shopped. Two bottles of bleach, one for the stockpile upstairs and one for the stockpile downstairs, tick.  Two bottles of Olive Oil, not on the shopping list (I see that they are on sale half price, and so two bottles will go into the stock pile even though the stock pile of Olive Oil does not need restocking.  I am thrifty, see), tick.  Dead-food cabinet: two slabs of rump steak sold at half price, to join the other dozen in the freezer,  tick.  Etc.  When I found the shelves from which I could select cane sugar (tick), I relented and bought a bag of caster sugar, and then, thinking they were nutritious, and sourced locally, I bought a sack of potatoes and a bag of parsnips for the food bank people.

I stood by the cashier, trying to figure out what was making me so angry now that my guilt was assuaged.  As I went out, I handed another food-bank ambusher, also a man in his fifties, my bag of goods.

"Oh, we can't take those," he said.  "They're not dried goods.  We only want dried goods.  We can't take the parsnips.  They'll go off."

"Then give them away tonight," I said. 

"Oh, I'll see what we can do," he said, after some wibbling, and took me over to the stall where a gentle old lady was collecting dried goods and giving people stickers.  She tried to ambush me with a sticker.

"I don't want a sticker," I said.  They looked at me with concern.  I must have been sounding a little mad.  After all, who wouldn't want a sticker to show that they'd spent a little of their weekly shopping budget buying something appropriate to give to the deserving poor? 

"Can I just ask you," I said, "who you voted for in the last election?"

The ambusher opened his mouth.  He knew exactly where I was coming from.

"Because," I said, "if you voted Liberal or Tory, then you caused* this.  You caused people to have to need food banks."

The man interrupted.  "It's nothing to do with the government," he said, and then, contradictorily, he said "and anyway, don't all governments do this?"

Oh, I wish I could think faster.  I was shaking with, with ... something.  Anger that people have to go to food banks in Cambridge in the second decade of the 21st century, anger that this tosser, who probably went to church and voted Tory in the name of liberalism and freedom of choice, felt that it was appropriate that middle class people could get their kicks by handing out food to people who can't afford food because of government policy.

"It's everything to do with government," I said. "The Tories have cut benefits.  They've taken money away from disabled people.  And then there's the rent.  They've cut rent allowances and child benefit allowances and taken money away from people.  It's a basic human right, to be able to eat, and have housing, and it shouldn't depend on the good will of the patronising classes.  The Tories have removed human rights.  That there has to be a food bank in Cambridge makes me very angry."

He started on.  I am FED UP with men talking over me, always talking, assuming that if they are talking I will stop talking and listen, although they never stop talking and listen when I am talking. I am FED UP with healthy, pink and shiny middle class TOSSERS showing their teeth and their assumption of privilege when faced with anything outside their shiny little bubbles of assumed privilege and assumed reasonableness. He spoke to me in a tone of reasonableness. I continued in a tone of mounting hysteria.  The little old lady who was collecting the food looked very upset.

I continued for a couple of minutes.  The eejit man also continued.  To end, I said. "And that's why, if you really want people to have enough to eat, you need to vote for a properly socialist government!"   And then I stormed off.

Because this is political and we don't need to have food banks; what we need is a goverment that behaves responsibly to all of its citizens, not just the people who have bankrolled it into power.

I am sorry for scaring the little old lady, though.  She was just doing what her generation have always done, which is get on with caring for people at the behest of curly-haired patronising middle class men.

later edit: Please read this excellent article from the Guardian on the growth of food banks within the UK

*with apologies to anyone who did, actually, vote specifically for Julian Huppert, because he is one of the few MPs in government who have actually been sort-of fighting this sort of thing.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Deep reservations about Dunelm

The laundry basket looked just right. It’s hard to get excited about a laundry basket, but this one ticked all the boxes: portable, collapsible, the right size, made of canvas. (I didn’t want a plastic one because I don’t like the thought of my laundry basket lying in landfill thousands of years after my death.)

So when I saw a suitable laundry basket on the Dunelm website, I tried to buy it straight away. I clicked “Add to basket” and got a reassuring green tick telling me that the item was in my (metaphorical, online) basket. But when I went to the (metaphorical, online) checkout, I spotted that delivery wasn’t available for this item. (It had said so on the previous page, but I was blinded by laundry-lust and didn’t notice.)

The only option available, if I wanted this item, was Reserve & Collect. Clicking the orange Reserve button lets you “check stock, reserve online, collect & pay in-store”. The only Dunelm stores I knew about were in Cardiff and Lancashire, nowhere near my home, but I formulated a cunning plan: I would buy the item online, then get my Cardiff-dwelling mum to collect it from the Cardiff store and give it to me when we next met up. So I pressed the Reserve button, then checked the stock in the Cardiff store. It was definitely available. So I went ahead with reserving it, first checking that my mum would be able to collect it for me during the three-day period they allow for collection.

Within hours Dunelm emailed me to say that my item was ready for collection. They gave me a numerical code to quote on collection. I duly passed this code on to my mum, who went to the store. They didn’t ask for the code, but they gave her a laundry basket.

It all seemed to have gone swimmingly until I arrived in Cardiff two days later for a family get-together and found they’d given my mum a completely different laundry basket. This one was also canvas and confusingly also called the Cairo, but it was rectangular rather than round and striped rather than plain.

My mum drove us to the Dunelm store and we explained the issue. We tried to give them the collection code, but again they weren’t interested. The woman on the customer service desk suggested we get the correct laundry basket from the shop floor and bring it back for swapping. We searched the shop. There were lots of ugly baskets, but the nice basket I’d seen online was nowhere to be seen.

We returned to the customer service desk. I was furious. What’s the point of reserving something if you have to visit the shop and search for it yourself, only to find it’s not there? A nice man from the customer service desk did his own search of the shop but found nothing. The nice lady checked the stock lists on her computer – while I hopefully but fruitlessly tried to give her the item code again – but found nothing.

It turns out that Dunelm’s “Reserve & Collect” system is the most misleadingly-named thing since Oxford’s “London Airport”. You can’t really reserve anything, which means you can’t be sure you’ll be able to collect it. Reservation of items is “available subject to stock”, which is a fancy-pants way of saying: “If we run out, that’s your problem, pal.” “Reserved” items aren’t taken off the shop floor into a different area, or marked as reserved; they’re just left on the shop floor, and if someone else buys your item before you collect it... tough. My mum made the point that this is not actually what the word “reserve” means.

In the case of my laundry basket, the customer service lady speculated that whoever did the stock check probably noticed that the item I’d ordered wasn’t there, but had decided to substitute a similar one of equal value. But, I said, the website asked for my contact details when I ordered, purely so that Dunelm would be able to give me information about my order. What was the point of my handing over my personal info if they couldn’t tell me something important like “We’re going to give you a completely different item”? And what was the point of giving me that wretched collection code if it isn’t used for anything?

Dunelm’s Reserve & Collect service falls into the category of “worse than useless”. Reserving an item makes absolutely no difference to your chances of buying said item. You still have to go to the shop and take your chances on whether or not it’s in stock, just as you would if you’d turned up to the shop on a whim. That’s the “useless” bit. But you also have to jump through hoops: providing your personal details, ensuring you visit the shop within three days of “reserving”, writing down a pointless “collection code”, queueing up at the customer service counter. Deliberately wasting all that time and energy is the bit that makes it worse than useless.

The staff at the Cardiff store were excellent, but they were no match for a system that ensured they couldn’t help however much they wanted to. Tellingly, the woman behind the desk actually asked me to complain to head office. She said that the failing Reserve & Collect system has been causing lots of problems and that it might help to get it fixed if more customers complained. She gave me a card with the number of the complaints line. I won’t be ringing it, though – it’s an 0845 number, which means that many phone providers will charge you to ring it. (Using an 0845 number for complaints is a sure sign that you don’t really want to listen to any.)

Naturally, when my husband slagged them off on Twitter they were quick to respond. But that’s just boring old Twitterwashing, trying to get complaints out of the public domain and into a nice private DM chat, or maybe a phone call where the customer can be ignored and pay for the privilege.

Of course, attempts to get complaints out of the public domain are like a red rag to a bull for me. That’s why I’ve written the full story here for the world to read.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Post Office returned my money

It’s occurred to me that some people might be wondering if the Post Office really did refund the money I paid them for home and contents insurance. In my most recent post, I said that they promised to reimburse me most of the money I’d paid, provided that I sent them the schedule of home and contents insurance by post.

They insisted on the original document, which worried me: if it got “lost in the post”, would I have any redress? I decided to send it by regular post anyway, but get it photocopied first so that I would have a record that it once existed. This meant that the task ahead of me – if I wanted my money back, that is – involved writing and printing a covering letter, getting a document photocopied and then posting it. Unsurprisingly, I put it off for a week or so.

Before I’d got round to the job of doing all the things the Post Office said were necessary to get my money back, I spotted that they’d paid the money back into my account anyway. I was obviously very glad I didn’t have to jump through those hoops after all, but annoyed that yet again, someone in the call centre had given me information that was at variance with reality as I perceive it.

Friday, 13 July 2012

More on Post Office home and contents insurance

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about my awful experience with Post Office home and contents insurance.

The Post Office said they were sending me a leaflet with instructions for how to claim the lower premium offered.  If I don’t follow the steps to claim that lower premium, I’m stuck with paying nearly £200 more for my home & contents insurance. It was supposed to be sent out “with your policy documents” and the covering letter I got with the policy documents said it was enclosed. But it wasn’t.

So I rang to ask where it was, and sat through the 1 minute 45 seconds of babble. But this time, I actually listened, because I wanted to see if I’d missed a bit about how paying monthly is effectively taking out a loan agreement, because someone in the call centre had previously claimed that the babble should have made me fully aware of the loan agreement I didn’t know I was taking out. But I still couldn’t hear any mention of loans or credit.

Anyway, I got through to a human and asked where my leaflet was. The man said it would be sent out separately.

“But the covering letter says it’s enclosed.”
“No, it’ll be sent out separately.”

Right. Whatever. I also had a minor amend to the policy, and the small print said I could do this without  charge, provided it was within 14 days of receiving the documents. The minor amend was to do with how close my house was to the nearest watercourse. When I got the quote, I said I wasn’t sure, but I thought it was just over a quarter of a mile away. Then I got my husband to check and it turned out that the nearest bit of the River Windrush is actually bang on a quarter of a mile away. I didn’t want to invalidate my cover with false information, so could they just amend my details to say it was pretty much exactly a quarter of a mile away?

Much fetching-of-supervisors ensued and then the nice man returned to say that the Post Office can’t offer me insurance any more.

Why not?
“Because your house is right by the sea.”
“It’s not the sea, it’s just a river.”
“Right. Well, we can’t offer you insurance. You’re too high-risk.”

That was it. After going through all this crap with the Post Office, I had to find another insurer anyway. (And quickly, because my previous insurance policy lapsed today.) I said I wished I’d never had anything to do with the Post Office, because it’s been a nightmare from start to finish. He apologised.

Then I asked if I’ll get my money back. (I’ve already paid £64.14.)  More fetching-of-supervisors.

The upshot is that I will get cover for the next ten days (until 23rd July) and only have to pay about £9 for this. The rest of the money I’ve paid will be returned, provided I send back the certificate. What certificate? A game of Twenty Questions established that they needed the schedule of home and contents insurance (although he originally demanded “the certificate of motor insurance” before I pointed out that this policy has nothing to do with cars). They will not accept a copy. It has to be the original. But once it’s returned, I get almost all my money back. The bit of money they’re keeping is to pay for the ten days’ cover which I now need as breathing space to put a new policy in place. Which would all be quite reasonable if I hadn’t already been through so much hassle.

To recap:

1. To take out Post Office home & contents insurance, or even get a quote for it, you need to have an occupation that’s already on their list, or pretend you have – but remember, any false information provided may invalidate your cover! 

2. Any joint policyholders will also have to have an occupation that’s already on their list. But you may find out after giving all the other person’s details and having a big wrangle about their job that the policy doesn’t allow joint policyholders anyway.

3. The Post Office promises to “beat your renewal quote by £50”. But if they can’t actually beat it by £50, you’ll only get the renewal-beating price once you’ve taken out more expensive insurance, paid a chunk of money up-front and jumped through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops. There’s also a wait of up to 60 days. (Because I was eventually refused insurance, I’ve been robbed of the chance to find out how long the wait really is and how difficult the hoops really are to jump through. I would love to hear from anybody who got further than me.)

4. Paying monthly involves taking out a credit agreement with a company you’ve never heard of. You will only realise this if you are smarter and more observant than I am. If you’re as dim as me, you will take the question “Would you like to pay monthly?” at face value and say “Yes, please.”

5. The name of the company you have the credit agreement with will be spelled in two different ways on your surprise credit agreement, not improving your confidence with the whole affair.

6. The leaflet explaining how to claim your lower, renewal-beating premium will be enclosed with your policy documents, according to the people you speak to and the covering letter of the policy documents. But it won’t really be enclosed at all, and when you ring back you’ll be told it’s arriving separately.

7. If you ring up to correct what you think is a minor detail on the policy, you may suddenly and unexpectedly be denied the cover you thought you had in place. You will then be forced to sort out insurance with an alternative provider anyway, after wasting hours of your life jumping through Post Office hoops.

8. If the Post Office unexpectedly denies you the cover you thought you had in place, there are more hoops to jump through before they will refund the money you've already paid.

9. Every call you make to try to sort out the mess will begin with a recorded message that lasts 1 minute 45 seconds. By proceeding with your call after this message you are supposedly giving your consent to various things mentioned on the recording. If you, like me, tune out as soon as you hear a recorded voice, you could be giving your consent to the Vogons building a new intergalactic superhighway and you’d be none the wiser.

To recap the recap: Please don’t go with the Post Office for your home & contents insurance, however good the deal looks.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The insurance deal that fails to deliver

The Post Office is currently offering a very tempting-sounding deal on home and contents insurance: “We guarantee to beat your renewal quote by at least £50.”  Sounds good, right?

I decided to try it, so I went for an online quote. But it wasn’t long before I came up against the first problem:: my occupation. I’m self-employed as a freelance copywriter. This occupation wasn’t listed on the Post Office dropdown. And I couldn’t proceed with the quote until I’d selected something from the dropdown.

I’m not a screenwriter or a signwriter. I’m not a newspaper retailer. I wasn’t any of the things decreed to be valid occupations by the dropdown list. So I was forced to give up. There was no option to skip that step, or come back to it later, or get extra help on it. I just had to give up.

Obviously, I don’t give up that easily. So I phoned them for a quote instead. When you ring the Post Office for anything to do with insurance, you are forced to listen to an insanely long recorded message. I timed it. It’s 1 minute 45 seconds. But that didn’t put me off either.

I got through to a human... and came up against the “occupation” thing again. They managed to find something on their systems that vaguely matched what I do. But then they asked if I wanted to put someone down as joint policyholder, I named my husband and the whole process started again. He’s a web developer, and they didn’t have it on their list. No, not a web designer. No, not development in the sense of international development.

The lovely Geordie lady I spoke to called in her supervisor, who decided that my husband could be put down as a “computer analyst”. “But that’s not his JOB!” I wailed. Lovely Geordie lady sympathised. I asked what the hell his job had to do with getting a home and contents insurance quote anyway, and she explained that certain jobs are higher-risk than others. Fair enough, I said, but given that we’ve established he’s not famous or notorious or bringing wild animals home at night, why can’t you just put his real job down? Because it’s not on the list. She could sympathise but not help.

My biggest concern was that I’d been told any false information could invalidate future claims, and here they were forcing me to put down a fake job for my husband. I agreed to move on with the quote when she assured me that the call was recorded and they had noted on the system that this wasn’t his actual job.

So we moved on. I was hoping they could beat my renewal quote of £199.21. But the final quote from the Post Office was a jaw-dropping £347.44. But, said the nice Geordie lady, we have this “beat your quote by £50” guarantee. So we can offer you £149.21, it’s just that terms and conditions are attached.

It goes a little something like this. They guarantee they can beat your quote by £50. And if they can’t, they will beat it anyway, because that’s what a guarantee is. But in the latter instance, you have to take out the insurance with the higher annual premium quoted and only once it’s up and running do they refund you the difference. You have to photocopy your current renewal quote and send it to them as proof, then they refund you the difference within 60 days. (This is made clear on their website).  If you’re paying monthly you have your monthly payments reduced accordingly (taking into account what you’ve already paid) and if you’re paying up front you get the difference refunded onto the card you paid with.

So... although they guarantee a cheaper quote, there can be a period of up to 60 days (and a bit of bureaucracy) between you and the savings. And in the meantime I would have to pay up a much bigger chunk of money than expected. We ran through the quote again, comparing it with my renewal quote. The Geordie lady confirmed it was a like-for-like comparison and we were entitled to get our insurance for £149.21, bureaucracy permitting.

I considered for a few hours before deciding to take out the policy, then rang back (and ignored the 1m 45s recording again). A different lady ran through my details and told me that the policy quoted for wouldn’t allow me to have a joint policyholder anyway, so all that fuss about my husband’s job was for nothing. She also explained that the £347.44 included a “monthly payment premium” which I hadn’t realised when I made the choice between paying monthly or paying up front. But hey, whatever.

Then another surprise. My first payment would be £64.14, followed by ten months at £28.33. Why was the first payment so high? Why were there only 11 months of payments? "That's just how home insurance is these days for the first year." But we get 12 months of cover, right? Of course; she seemed to think that was a very stupid question.

I asked her to clarify that they were definitely going to give me the cover for the renewal-beating £149.21 quoted originally. Yes, once they got the documents from me. A leaflet about what to do would be included in the policy details sent by post. So I paid the first instalment (which had to be paid straight away) and awaited my policy details. They came through straight away by email, with hard copies to follow by post.

Yet another surprise. My insurance policy documents included details of  a “fixed-sum loan agreement” with a creditor called BISL Limited. (Or possibly BFSL Limited; it was spelt two different ways.)
This Agreement is for a fixed sum loan to finance the cost of an insurance Policy ... The amount of credit provided under this Agreement is £256.60... The total amount payable under this Agreement  is £283.30. ..The total charge for credit is £26.70, which  consists wholly of interest. The interest rate is  10.41%. This interest is fixed for the term of this  Agreement and interest will be calculated  annually and applied monthly.

WHAT? Needless to say, this was the first I’d heard of it and I hadn’t consented to take out any kind of loan. I rang the Post Office again, ignored the 1 minute 45 seconds of recorded crap again and spoke to a completely different nice Geordie lady. She said:
  • It’s the same throughout the insurance industry: if you pay monthly, you effectively take out a loan agreement with the provider.
  • But “It’s not the same as a normal loan, like financing for a car, and it won’t affect your credit rating.”

“But why didn’t anybody explain this?” I asked. Apparently it was all explained in the 1 minute 45 seconds of recorded blurb you get when you ring up, and proceeding with the call means you’re giving your consent to this. But nobody listens to the recorded blurb! Why wasn’t I given the option at the point where I was asked how I wanted to pay? Apparently I was told. “We have a big green screen here and we have to read out all of it, so there’s no way you weren’t told.”

Basically, it was my fault for choosing to pay monthly. But, I said, paying monthly was the sensible choice because I was quoted such a huge annual sum. Well, said the lady, not to be rude, but you shouldn’t have taken out insurance with us if you can’t afford it. And if you cancel with us, you’ll have the same problem with other insurers.

No, I said, I won’t, because the other quotes I got were for smaller sums [£154.60 from Swiftcover and £156.67 from Axa], which I would be happy to pay up front. But the Post Office offered the lowest quote of all at £149.21. Hence my willingness to jump through hoops and pay more initially. Hence also my desire to pay monthly – because two twelfths of £347.44 followed by much lower payments sounded like a better bet than paying £347.44 upfront (though of course the whole payment thing didn’t quite work out like that in practice). Oh yes, she said, don’t worry about that. You will get the lower deal if that’s what we’ve quoted you.

There wasn’t much I could do. Apparently I had consented to the loan agreement, though I didn’t have any memory of doing so. Oh, and if I do cancel with the Post Office within 14 days of receiving my policy documents, I’ll have to pay an “arrangement fee” of £30. (If I cancel after 14 days, I’ll have to pay £35 plus the cost for the amount of time covered – presumably at the higher rate.) Any changes to the policy will incur an admin charge of £20, and I assume this includes changes to how I pay, so there’s no point trying to escape the monthly payment premium by coughing up the whole sum now.

Because of the hefty get-out fees, and because of the effort I’ve already expended getting the cover in place, I’ve reluctantly decided to stick with the Post Office insurance, for this year only.

The policy documents came through by post today with a cheery covering letter: “We guarantee to beat your renewal premium by at least £50 – see enclosed leaflet for details of what you need to do now...

If you’ve stayed with me through this epic tale, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that no such leaflet was enclosed. So my next task is to ring them yet again. I will be letting Restless Consumer readers know how I get on.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Daddy issues

It is a truth universally acknowledged that dads are a bit hard to buy for. So when I spotted something I knew my dad would like in a junk-mail catalogue, a week or two before Father’s Day, I was very pleased indeed.

The catalogue was from Culture Vulture Direct and came stuffed in the envelope with a gift I’d ordered from a different company. Culture Vulture Direct (not to be confused with the Leeds-based Culture Vulture) sells vaguely arty, cultural-sounding gifts. In the “Surrealism” section of the catalogue I saw the Hopside Down Glass, a beer glass with an inverted beer bottle inside it. It’s stretching the definition of surrealism a bit, but it’s a clever visual joke and it involves beer, so I immediately thought of my dad.

I could have ordered it by post, but I thought it would be easier and quicker to buy from the Culture Vulture Direct website. Here’s where I encountered my first problem: searching the site for the phrase “hopside down glass” didn’t bring up the item I wanted. (Did you mean “her tan glass?”) Ditto “hopside-down glass” and “beer glass”. I started to wonder if the item had been discontinued between my receiving the catalogue and trying to buy the item. I tried the Glassware subsection of the Home & Garden category. Still no joy. I tried searching for the item number as given in the catalogue. No luck whatsoever.

So I left the site and Googled “hopside-down glass”. There were lots of results, with Amazon predictably at the top. But I don’t want to buy from nasty tax-avoiding Amazon! I want to buy from a small independent British business! I want to buy from Culture Vulture Direct, because they gave me the idea of buying this thing in the first place!

Then, in my desperation, I hit on the idea of Googling the name of the site plus the name of the item. So I searched for “ hopside down glass” and finally reached a page where I could see the item. Well, I couldn’t actually see it because the page was missing an image. But I knew what it looked like from the catalogue. So I just ordered it.

I received the order confirmation shortly afterwards. The delivery information says “Your order should arrive within 7 days.” It was the morning of Saturday 9th June and I was reasonably confident that it would arrive before I left to visit my parents the following Friday evening. The 7-days thing must be the absolute maximum, right? I arranged for it to be delivered to my husband’s workplace because I was away for part of the following week. Then I forgot about it.

When I returned home on Thursday evening and found the glass hadn’t arrived, I got a bit worried. Technically “7 days” would allow for it to arrive on the Saturday, which would be too late for my purposes because I would already be in Cardiff with my parents. So I crossed fingers and toes it would arrive on the Friday. It didn’t.

Father’s Day rolled around on the Sunday and I had nothing to give my dad but excuses. OK, so I’d bought a small back-up present. But it wasn’t much, given that this gift was supposed to be from my two sisters as well.

My order still hadn’t arrived the following Monday. That’s stretching the concept of “7 days” more than a nice beer glass stretches the concept of surrealism. On Tuesday 19th, I emailed them asking where my order was and saying I was very disappointed, because it had been intended as a Father’s Day gift.

They replied a day later saying sorry and asking for my name and address and order number. I supplied these. A day after that they replied saying that my order was effectively non-existent:
Dear Kate,
Thank you for your email.
Unfortunately due to a system error this order has not imported from the website onto our system that we use to process orders.
This means that we do not have a record of the order and because of this your card has not been charged. This also means that we are unable to process this order as we do not have any of the order details available. If you would still like to receive this item a new order will have to be placed.
But what about the order confirmation email I got, the one that lulled me into a false sense of security because I took it as, er, confirmation that my order had been received?
Please discard the order confirmation email that was received, as these are automatically generated once the order is completed.
I would like to apologise for any disappointment that has been caused on this occasion and should you require any further assistance please do not hesitate to contact me.
It’s nice to get an apology, but Culture Vulture Direct aren’t offering any compensation for my failed order, any compensation for my wasted time or any help with re-ordering.

I supplied them with my name, address and the item I wanted twice: once when I placed the original order and again when I was trying to help them track down the non-existent order. But if I really want to buy it from them, I have to supply this information for a third time, along with my credit card details and delivery instructions, with absolutely no guarantee that it won’t all get lost again. Why on earth should I do that when there are so many other websites selling exactly the same item? I already feel as if I’ve expended way too much unnecessary effort on trying to buy from Culture Vulture Direct rather than the competition. They’re also not offering to look into the “system error” that lost my order once and could (as far as I know) lose it again with zero warning and the false security of an automatically generated order confirmation.

I’m the kind of person who’s easily mollified by a goodwill gesture. If they’d offered to waive payment, or even waive postage, or send me some kind of free gift with my new order, or look into what caused the problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again, I would be happy. In fact, I would be talking publicly about how good this business is at handling complaints. But the strong impression I’m getting is that Culture Vulture Direct really doesn’t care about my order. The hoops I had to jump through just to buy the item in the first place should have been a warning sign, but I was stupid enough to give them the benefit of the doubt. Now I have to conclude: if they cared at all about my business, they would have made everything so much easier.

Update (June 26th 2012): after I contacted Culture Vulture Direct asking to be removed from their mailing list on the grounds that I will never buy from them again, a minion replied to me saying: "It actually appears that you ordered using an older obsolete version of our website which you should not have been able to access." Right, but the fact remains that I did access it and order from it, and there was nothing to tell me that I shouldn't. If I was psychic surely I would have been ordering one of their floaty scarves instead of a beer glass. They have also offered free express delivery on my next order, as belated compensation for the Father's Day foul-up, despite the fact that I've already told them (in two separate communications) that I will never use their site again. They've also advised me to find the site in future by using the correct URL rather than googling it.

Second update (September 10th 2012): I've just received another catalogue from Culture Vulture Direct. That's after I explicitly asked them not to send me any further marketing communications. So they're sending me a catalogue after I've asked them not to... but they couldn't send me the actual item I tried to buy, or take my money. Great business model, guys.