Tony Hetherington is Financial Mail on Sunday's ace investigator, fighting readers corners, revealing the truth that lies behind closed doors and winn
Tony Hetherington is Financial Mail on Sunday’s ace investigator, fighting readers corners, revealing the truth that lies behind closed doors and winning victories for those who have been left out-of-pocket. Find out how to contact him below.
Ms M.T. writes: I arranged to go to Sicily for a wedding, but was diagnosed with cancer and needed major surgery, so had to cancel.
My insurer, Puffin, is refusing to meet my travel policy claim as the hotel has offered me a voucher to stay there next year.
However, the wedding has now taken place.
Sicilian flair: Couples like to recreate the scene in The Godfather
Tony Hetherington replies: Weddings in Sicily are big business, with couples attracted by the chance to recreate the Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) wedding scene from The Godfather, complete with a local band, as the couple and guests walk through the narrow streets.
But if you were unable to attend the wedding for perfectly understandable reasons, the offer of a hotel voucher for use in the future is not much use. The hotel only offered it as a gesture of goodwill, since its terms and conditions exclude cash refunds. And this is why you quite rightly took out travel insurance.
The policy says: ‘We will pay up to £1,500 for… loss of accommodation… that you have paid or have agreed to pay, that you cannot recover from any other source, following your necessary cancellation after you purchased this insurance resulting in financial loss.’
You had no problem with flights as easyJet gave you a full refund, so what went wrong with the travel insurance that should have covered your hotel bill?
I contacted Puffin in Narberth, Pembrokeshire, and managing director James Clarke explained that his firm was an insurance intermediary. He was full of sympathy for you, but while Puffin marketed policies, it was on behalf of the actual insurer, who made decisions on claims.
That insurer was Travel Insurance Facilities (TIF), based in West Malling, Kent, and Puffin has severed relations with it. Clarke added: ‘I would prefer not to comment on why we no longer sell policies on behalf of TIF.’
As for TIF, it told me: ‘Travel insurance policies are designed to put customers back in the same financial position as they were before a loss.
‘Therefore, if a customer can get a refund, move their holiday, or receive a voucher enabling them to rebook their trip at a later date, there is simply nothing to claim back.’
TIF said if you did not want the voucher, you should contact the hotel and ‘explain why a cash refund is more suitable’.
Frankly, this is a disgrace. TIF knew that the hotel’s terms and conditions excluded a refund, and the insurer also knew that you were going to a wedding, so offering a hotel room at any other date in the future was an empty gesture. It would be like telling someone who missed a football match, or a rock concert, or even a funeral, not to worry – they could go at another time.
The truth was that you had lost money and were entitled to money back in return. You could not spend a Sicilian hotel voucher at your local supermarket. You could not pay your rent or your mortgage with a Sicilian hotel voucher. You could not expect your local authority to accept a Sicilian hotel voucher instead of council tax. You needed cash, you were entitled to cash, but you were refused cash by TIF.
TIF hinted that if it paid you in cash, you could sneakily hang on to the voucher and head for the hotel as soon as travel was allowed.
Fine, I replied. I would ask you to hand the voucher over to me and I would give it to TIF to destroy. But if TIF stuck to its guns, then I wanted to know what other offers of goods or services it would regard as being every bit as valid as cash.
TIF retreated slightly, offering to reconsider, but only if you contacted the hotel, got it to refuse a cash refund, and then got it to confirm that it was withdrawing the offer of a voucher.
In other words, your claim would be based on whether the hotel in Sicily would jump through TIF’s hoops.
You made the hotel booking through travel website Expedia. I gave TIF copies of emails in which the hotel told Expedia there would be no cash refund, and you told Expedia that you were rejecting the voucher offer.
At last, this worked. TIF agreed to pay the £870 you had lost to the hotel. This was actually £50 more than your claim, as the policy made the first £50 your responsibility, but TIF decided not to enforce this.
TIF told me: ‘After receiving confirmation that Ms T’s accommodation provider was unable to offer her a cash refund, and had retracted its offer of a voucher to be redeemed at a later date, we are pleased that we have been able to settle Ms T’s claim.’
However, I am still left wondering why an insurer believes that a voucher should ever be regarded as equal to cash, when the blunt truth is that this can never be the case.
Cattery made my power bills rise
Ms A.G. writes: We have been with Npower as our electricity supplier since May, 2019.
When bills shot up, I realised I was being charged for a business contract and not on a residential tariff. Npower wanted proof that I live in a twobedroom home, and I supplied this, but the bills keep arriving and I now owe £4,038 for 14 months of electricity.
It is not that I am unwilling to pay, but why is it so hard to get a correct bill?
Confusion Officials at Npower were as confused as Ms A.G.
Tony Hetherington replies: I asked officials at Npower to look into what you wrote, and I think they were as confused as you. They listened to recordings of phone conversations with you, checked your contract, and confirmed that you really did enter into a one-year fixed term business agreement. On the other hand, your electricity consumption was way above that of a typical two-bedroom house.
The root of the problem is that your house comes with some land attached, and in 2019 you applied to the local council for planning permission to build and run a cattery.
Permission was granted, and the council’s public register then listed your property as ‘mixed use’, subject to business rates. In at least one conversation with Npower, you confirmed this and were placed on a business tariff. What Npower did not know was that the cattery had not actually been built. Work on it was completed just a few months ago.
On top of this, the cattery is on a separate electricity supply provided by Eon, not Npower. The outcome is that Npower has switched your house on to its lowest possible residential tariff, knocking more than £500 off your bill. It is also arranging for your meter to be tested, after which it will agree figures with you for an affordable payment plan.
If you believe you are the victim of financial wrongdoing, write to Tony Hetherington at Financial Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TS or email [email protected] Because of the high volume of enquiries, personal replies cannot be given. Please send only copies of original documents, which we regret cannot be returned.