Written evidence submitted by Anne McLaughlin MP (DHH0014)
Decarbonising heat in homes inquiry
I write to the Committee in relation to its current inquiry into decarbonising heat in homes on behalf of my constituents affected by Green Deal loan mis-selling by rogue trader Home Energy & Lifestyle Management Ltd (HELMS). I write as a constituency MP but also as co- chair of the APPG on Green Deal Mis-selling.
The Committee’s inquiry is a timely one and I was pleased to see that within it, there will be a focus on consumer protection. Robust consumer protection measures and strong public confidence in green schemes that aim to decarbonise heat are vital if the UK is to meet net zero targets.
As you are aware, the Green Deal was a UK Government scheme which aimed to enable homeowners to borrow money to pay for energy efficiency measures for their homes, including external wall cladding and solar panels. By signing up to the Green Deal, people entered into a consumer credit agreement with a Green Deal provider such as HELMS and paid back the money they borrowed by instalments through their electricity bill.
HELMS operated in the mid-2010s and sold 4,226 Green Deal plans across the UK, 3,054 of which were in Scotland. 103 Green Deal plans which include solar panels were sold in my constituency of Glasgow North East.
HELMS’ sales representatives often targeted vulnerable and elderly people, using a range of pressure-selling tactics and providing misleading information that the measures were free.
Victims found themselves signed up to loans ranging from the thousands to tens of thousands of pounds. In many cases, they also unwittingly signed away their right to their Feed-in Tariffs to HELMS’ sister company, PV Solar Investments, losing the ability to make money by selling the energy generated by their solar panels back to the national grid.
Furthermore, HELMS often failed to acquire the relevant building warrants (required in Scotland) for the installation of the measures, leaving people without adequate home insurance and difficulties selling their homes.
In 2015, the Information Commissioner’s Office fined HELMS £200,000 for its cold calling practices and later that year the company was fined a further £10,500 by the Department for Energy and Climate Change for breaches to the Green Deal code of practice.
Following these fines, HELMS went into voluntary liquidation and was formally dissolved. This left the victims of HELMS’ mis-selling to navigate a complicated complaints process involving the Green Deal Finance Company (GDFC) which receives the Green Deal loan repayments, the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Secretary of State.
Neither the GDFC or BEIS have, so far, acknowledged that HELMS mis-sold Green Deal loans on a mass scale. Complaints are being dealt with on a case-by-case basis, taking, on average, well over a year to be dealt with and offers of loan reduction rather than full cancellation are being made. Some of my constituents have yet to receive even an acknowledgement of their complaint despite making it more than a year ago.
In contrast, high street lenders such Barclays and Shawbrook, have been cancelling loans also mis-sold by HELMS which were used top-up the funding used to install measures not fully covered by the Green Deal loan. These lenders have also refunded payments made plus interest, cleared consumers’ credit histories and paid them compensation for the distress caused.
Both the initial mis-selling by HELMS and the seemingly never-ending complaints process and lack of redress for consumers since then has shaken public confidence in schemes which aim to decarbonise heat in homes.
While I am supportive of net zero targets, moves to decarbonise heat should be accompanied by strong consumer protection measures so such a fiasco can never happen again.
Furthermore, if public confidence is to be won back, HELMS’ customers must receive adequate redress. Without it, understandable mistrust in the energy efficiency and renewables retrofit market will linger and may hamper attempts to encourage uptake of such measures.
Most of my affected constituents live in two neighbouring areas Balornock and Barmulloch. When the local authority recently offered inexpensive external wall cladding, many people refused to even discuss it with them, such is the fear.
In 2017 I lost my seat, regaining it in 2019. That period gave me time to look into the issues in more detail. I sat with around 25 of the households, interviewed them and wrote up their complaints for them.
The one thing I heard repeatedly was ‘HELMs was backed by the government, it was a government thing so I just assumed it was legitimate. I will never trust any authority again.’ That has spread and it will, unfortunately, spread even further when we (the APPG on Green Deal Mis-selling) publish our report and embark on our media strategy. We very much hope the government will resolve this issue before any of that happens.
I hope you will agree for the need for robust consumer protection and adequate redress for HELMS’ victims if decarbonising heat in homes is ever to be achieved and would be happy to provide further information to the Committee if required.
Anne McLaughlin MP, Glasgow North East
SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Women and Equalities