Memorandum submitted by Age Concern Cheshire (FP 52)

 

I am writing to you - and copying the same information to a number of additional recipients

listed below- in response to a cluster of concerns recently brought to us by clients. The

Information and Advice Service provided by Age Concern East Cheshire aims to assist

clients with problems they might be experiencing. On their behalf, Age Concern East

Cheshire is making representations to Warm Front, to Age Concern England, and to

Members of Parliament.

 

You will be as aware as anyone of the considerable public outcry, following a period of

exceptionally cold weather in January, about apparent failures in heating systems and the

delays and difficulties in remedying those failures. There has been media coverage in the

past week of the matter. A significant number of those expressing concern are Warm Front

clients.

 

The examples I give are collected in the main over the month of January by our service; the

one exception is a client who 'complained' last year following a Warm Front installation of

her boiler.

 

Example One

I will start with that Client from 2009. As I have not been able to contact her today I cannot

name her, but can say that she is elderly and lives alone; she is on Pension Credit; she is

not confident about technical matters, but was delighted to hear that she might get a new

boiler via Warm Front, hoping that this would cut her fuel bills and keep her house warmer.

It quickly became apparent that she did not like the new boiler She fiddled with the controls,

believing it was running all the time and thus using fuel; she would turn it off; she came in to

ask us to arrange for another visit to her to explain the controls to her; she asked if she could

have her hot water tank back. We tried to persuade her to leave the boiler alone and to

monitor fuel use in the Colder months - but I have not been able to speak to her to hear

more.

 

I deduce from that example that there will many older clients who will be equally puzzled,

and wonder if the lesson here is to provide better, simpler explanations of how a combi boiler

works, how it does (or does not) help with reducing fuel usage, and how it is best controlled.

That is, some simple instructions or guidelines to reassure clients. Also, I read that combi

boilers can be fitted with a small hoi water tank for clients who prefer the old system that

they have been used to.

 

Example Two

This complaint is of a different nature.. Originally a client contacted us as he was having

great difficulty in getting a heating engineer who had expertise in attending to oil fired

systems in a park home, to repair a Warm Front installed boiler. The engineer who did

attend also - coincidentally - contacted us as he had made visits to this client and was

appalled at the standard of workmanship he found. His report to us takes the form of a letter

he has written, in which he complains to the original installation or maintenance company

about the quality of the work they had supposedly done. His question to us was in part how

to complain for his clients about poor or unsafe work done by another company, and about

the difficulties he had had getting responses from Warm Front.

 

As a separate point, and from his experience, he comments on the room thermometers and

programmers being installed by Warm Front contractors. Which he has found troublesome

for clients to the point that they turn off their boilers for example at night time, as they cannot

cope with the controls.

 

Although the engineer would give permission for his report to be used, the client is not in

agreement for me to copy this to you. The client is pleased to have his heating restored. and

to have found a local company to help him, but does not want to make a fuss. he says. He is

having to pay himself for the follow-up maintenance. However, he did tell me that 'four lads'

fitted the boiler two years ago. thanks to the WF grant, but there was no follow-up at or after

12 months.

 

Example Three

 

Mr X phoned us about his Aunt of 93. who had a Warm Front installed boiler put in about 5 or so years ago. Not only has this repeatedly caused problems. but maintenance contracts have not been honoured and the clients have incurred considerable additional charges in getting a local heating engineer to attend frequently. The boiler is now functioning only partially and Mr X was advised by us to ask Social Services for some warm alternative accommodation for his Aunt when the worst weather was being experienced. Both are costs which should not have to be incurred by someone of the Aunt's age and means. Mr X was particularly concerned at the comment from his plumber that the original boiler was of poor quality and had been badly installed. Notes attached.

 

Mr X has not disclosed his Aunt's name, but was very frustrated and aggrieved at his

Failure to get in touch with Warm Front or obtain any assistance with what appears to him to

be an irresolvable problem. There is no way the Aunt could afford an alternative boiler, which is now, he is advised, beyond repair.

 

Example Four

Ms Y is a younger client, but she says her case flags up how easily older clients might be 'fobbed off' With inadequate information, poor systems and appliances, and be left with the impression that, as recipients of grants, they should be grateful for anything. In her instance, there have been lengthy delays (in getting a revised survey and appropriate appliances agreed), alongside the poor quality of information.

 

Notes from conversations with x are attached with her permission.

 

Example Five

 

Ms Y's letter re her parents' experience is attached, with her permission This details delays, poor quality boiler and functioning, and - I understand - a very common problem with a condensing system, of freezing or blocking pipework. I read on-line that this 'fault' is able to be remedied, which makes one wonder Why it is so common.

 

I refer now to the Warm Front booklet, What to Expect from Warm Front

 

This invites the public to provide feedback to the organisation, and advises that feedback is

valued and helps to improve the service. It is for that reason that I write, as I would hope

that the Warm Front scheme could be as beneficial as possible to everyone in the most

effective way.

 

Your booklet says you offer the 'highest level of service' and use 'fully qualified installers'

who have been checked for safety, reliability and their quality of work. WF operates strict

selection conditions for installers, it says.

 

There are clearly stated timescales within which work and assessments are made, and the

promise of two years of free aftercare such as a post-job check and annual servicing. There

are clear statements about instances where 'top-up' fees maybe charged, and the order in

which things should happen.

 

It all sounds very promising.

 

It seems such a shame therefore that a significant number of your customers feel let down,

irritated and aggrieved, and that members of professional organisations such as heating

engineers should be critical of work they are called out to remedy. The public has experienced delays, is puzzled to be offered contractors who operate from long-distances, does not appear to be receiving reliable aftercare, and - in some instances reported to us -not taking up the grants because the top-ups required are too high.

 

Deductions

 

In summary, the points I pick up from the cluster of clients mentioned above, and their

experiences are:

 

delays - not just in responding to clients 9n the telephone, but also in doing surveys or re-surveys. It is evident that WF was under considerable pressure and weather conditions were exceptional in January, which should have indicated that additional staff might have been needed to cope with calls from the public. Perhaps the scheme needs additional funding?

 

poor advice - which those clients without the confidence to resist might take believing that it must be correct if given by an 'expert'

 

poor attitude and pressure - that is, making clients feel they should be grateful and, because of the grant, obliged to take what is being offered, without options or adequate information. This could be deemed to be taking advantage of a client's age, vulnerability, or lack of technical understanding; ie no offer of options or alternatives, eg a tank plus a new boiler

 

limited information - which might suit those who want a simple solution and don't want or can't cope with technical stuff, but which must be tailored to the client. There will be those who want to know more, without being accused of conducting an interrogation

 

quality - several comments about poor quality and unreliable appliances or installations, some made by qualified engineers who can presumably be trusted to know what they are talking about

 

maintenance":' reported failures to comply with requirements to attend regularly to service boilers, and in making repairs of a good and reliable standard. Assured annual visits seem to be very hit and miss, and follow up maintenance hard to get, so that vulnerable clients are left without essential heating and hot water for too long

 

In essence, it would seem to me to be counter-productive to install equipment that is difficult

for clients to control, that tends to have a reputation for unreliability or malfunctioning, and

becomes costly to service or maintain, when clients are forced to turn to privately arranged

visits from heating engineers. On this final point, I would suggest that clients would be within

their rights to feel entitled to some recompense for costs incurred.

 

Certainly they have felt aggrieved enough to approach Age Concern East Cheshire. I offer

their experiences in the hope that representation to Warm Front or directly through

Parliament might enable the Warm Front scheme to improve for the future.

 

February 2010