How many retailers, I wonder, have never received a copy of their British Gas contract? Ash Patel, who runs a couple of sites in Sheffield, rang late last year after he had received a bill showing that his tariff had gone up by nearly 50%. He decided to switch and found a broker who promised to secure him the best rates possible. “They found a much cheaper supplier – about 5.5p per day unit whereas British Gas was charging me 8.5p – but the new supplier said I had to be free of contract to switch.”

He then discovered that British Gas had rolled over his contract for another two years without telling him. In fact he has never had a contract of any sort from British Gas as he was one of the many Enron customers who got automatically switched over when Enron pulled out of business some five years ago.

I recommended that he consult Energy Watch’s specialist business team (0845 906 0708) before taking any other action. When I rang him back in the New Year things were slightly better. Energy Watch had written to British Gas and, as a result, his contract is now only for one more year. He has also been offered better terms but still nowhere near as good as the broker had found for him. And he still hasn’t had a copy of that contract.

“They told me they posted it, so it must have got lost in the post. But I think their attitude is disgusting. I’d like to warn other retailers to be extremely careful about what they sign.” He is going to put his notice in now just to make sure he can get out in a year’s time.


Sometimes people request anonymity out of shyness but this caller asked for his name to be withheld because he was in the wrong and got caught. He had a visit from an environmental health officer who checked his fridge. “I do usually keep a record of my temperatures but one of my staff was off sick and we missed a few days. As chance would have it, the EHO found that the chilled food fridge was 10 or 12 degrees instead of eight. She insisted on taking £200-worth of food away with her that she felt was at risk, saying: ‘Surrender now or there will be an order’. And now I have to go to an interview.”

I advised my caller to prepare well, taking in any checklists showing that due diligence was the normal practice and that two unfortunate incidences (sick staff and faulty fridge) had conspired on this occasion to put him in the wrong.

I checked back last week to find out how things went. “I changed the fridge and put even better procedures in place,” he told me.

The interview was quite daunting. The EHOs had two pages of questions for him and said they would get back to him within five days. He waited anxiously for two weeks before ringing them up for the outcome.

“They gave me a caution and said it would stay on my record for five years if I accepted it. I said what do you mean ‘if I accept it’? They said if you don’t accept it then we will review it and you could go to court.”

He then took legal advice from a solicitor-friend (best kind) who said you might as well agree because they must think they have a strong enough case to threaten you with court.


Staff levels can pose all sorts of problems at Yuletide (and, judging by the number of calls that I get on the subject, the rest of the year is no picnic either). I got a little rash of calls in December on employment which I’ll summarise for those who may have encountered similar – and if you haven’t then you can bask in the fact that you have it easier than some.

Q: When calculating holiday pay, should overtime be included?

A: No, it’s based on normal working hours unless overtime is contractually agreed. If their working hours vary, base holiday pay on an average of earnings in the past 12 weeks.

Q: What do we do about maternity pay when the baby comes early and the employee is still at work?

A: Weeks of statutory maternity pay run from Sunday to Saturday but if the baby comes before maternity leave has started, SMP starts from the day following the birth and thereafter weeks of SMP run from that day of the week.

Q: How long do I have to put up with a malingerer swinging the lead?

A: This is the hardest one. If they have worked for you for less than one year, you can get rid of them without fear of any unfair dismissal claims. Otherwise you have to establish that they have caused your business problems; you have to discuss the situation with the employee and get his or her consent to contact their GP; you have to write to the GP asking when they might be fit to return. If you fire them, it doesn’t automatically count as unfair dismissal just because they have a certificate from their doc. You obviously need someone who is fit and able to do the work. But, oh my, this one can be a pain to sort out.