Telecoms bill dropped after John’s debate over “shameful” mis-selling

THOUSANDS of pounds in charges have been dropped by a telecoms company after MP John Healey highlighted their “shameful” practices last week.

Mr Healey held a debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday 26 November to tell the story of 70-year-old Swinton man Stephen Jones who was mis-sold four telephone and broadband contracts and left with a £3,500 bill.

He also exposed the failures of the communications industry ombudsman – set up to be the consumer’s champion – which sided with the company, Unicom, and encouraged them to bill Mr Jones for more than £3,000 in ‘termination’ fees and interest.

Two days after the debate, Unicom told Mr Healey in a letter that “having reflected further on the circumstances” they would be apologising to Mr Jones and clearing his account of all charges.

Mr Healey said: “I am delighted and relieved for Mr Jones this it is all over. He should not have been put through this.

“His daughter told me he was finally smiling again. It has been a shadow hanging over him for two-and-a-half years.”

In the debate, the MP had said: “I want justice for Stephen Jones and together we want to help prevent other people from being treated the same by Unicom.

“I will do everything I can to get these indefensible charges dropped and I will not – will not – give up this fight.”

Mr Jones was ‘cold-called’ at his local hairdressing salon, Stephen Hairdressing, in May 2012 and sold two telephone and two broadband contracts for his home and shop.

The broadband would have cost him £72 a month – £2,500 over the three-year contract – whereas he had previously been receiving broadband for free.

A friend contacted Unicom on Mr Jones’ behalf requesting the cancellation of the contracts, then took the case to the Ombudsman because they disputed an element of the final bill which was less than £200.

The charge was for broadband that was never connected or used. Mr Jones has never had a computer at his shop and lacks a basic understanding of computers and the internet.

But the Ombudsman ruled in Unicom’s favour and paved the way for Unicom to apply ‘termination fees’, leaving him with more than £3,500 to pay. He has been threatened with court action and bankruptcy.

As a last resort, Mr Jones and his friend asked for their MP’s help in July.

Mr Healey told Parliament Mr Jones was a vulnerable, trusting man who is highly susceptible to buying things he does not need. He is not able to read or understand complex detail of the type found in consumer contracts.

The MP criticised Unicom for mis-selling, ‘slamming’ – obtaining Mr Jones’ Migration Authorisation Code without his authorisation – delaying cancelling the contracts and then applying termination fees retrospectively.

He added: “Unicom took advantage of the ombudsman’s report to slap termination fees on all four contracts – almost £600 for each one.”

Mr Jones first found out about the extra costs when Unicom phoned him in hospital – having broken his back in three places – demanding immediate payment of all four termination fees totalling more than £3,000.

The balance on the account last week was over £3,500 and rising by £50 a month.

Mr Healey told the Commons that the ombudsman, which is funded by the telecoms industry, comes across as too close to the companies to deal properly with complaints.

In March 2014, Ofcom launched an investigation into Unicom’s sales and marketing practices, which is expected to complete in February.

Mr Healey said: “The dreadful experience of Stephen Jones at the hands of this predatory company raises serious questions. Is the present system of protection and investigation strong enough? Is the ombudsman too cosy with the companies that fund it? Is Ofcom tough enough to bring into line rogue companies that rip off and bully customers such as Mr Jones?”

He asked the minister to encourage Unicom’s chief executive to drop the charges.

Ed Vaizey, minister for culture and the digital economy, said: “Anyone listening to the events he recounted will be shocked at the way Unicom has behaved.

“It seems astonishing that a telecoms company would pursue a man in his 70s, who has broken his back, for this sum of money. It should recognise that … it should waive this bill.”

Mr Jones said: “I can’t thank John enough for what he has done. He was marvellous. I’m very, very relieved.

“It’s been a long and very bumpy journey. It’s been very hard. What Unicom have done is disgraceful. I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through this.”

• Click through to read the debate in full or watch it.