This is a different country. Why didn’t you do your research? Are you saying that it is all perfect in the UK? And of course, the piece de resistance: Why don’t you go back to where you came from, if it’s so bad here?
To be fair, it is diabolically difficult to explain how this isn’t just a ‘foreigner contaminated’, returned migrant patronizingly telling her fellow Maltese compatriots how to run their country. This scam is insidiously nasty and seemingly harmless at first glance.
I never give up so I’m going to give it another shot.
Imagine, if you will, that you live in a country where there is only one kind of residential tariff. You live in this country for years. You move house several times. Each time you do, you cancel your utilities and start a new account for your new property. It doesn’t matter if you are a homeowner or a tenant: you are in control of your relationship with your chosen utility company. You receive bills in your name at your address. You examine the consumption data on your bill carefully; you want to be environmentally friendly, and save some money in the process.
Now imagine that you move to Malta. You sign a rental contract. The rental contract states that you are to pay your landlord 100 euro on account towards the utilities bill. You think this is reasonable. You are somewhat surprised, that you, a grown woman of mature years, are not to be allowed to have a direct relationship with the utilities company. The account holder will be your landlord, you are told. Therefore you will not get any information from Arms about your account because of the Data Protection Act. You find this quite insulting; the unspoken implication is that you are not to be trusted with your own utility bill, that you are guilty even before committing a crime. Fine, you tell yourself, this is a different country and we just have to go with the flow. So you do.
You pay your landlord 100 euro per month on account. A year goes by. The first Arms bill arrives. It is not addressed to you so you do not open it. The bill exceeds the 100 euro per month that you have paid, so you increase your payments on account to 150 euro per month. Another year, and subsequent bills show that the 150 euro per month you are paying is still not enough. So you increase your payments to 200 euro per month.
Still there are arrears, so you phone Arms, the state owned, sole utility billing company, to find out why your bills are so expensive. You are told that Arms cannot have a conversation with you because you are not the account holder. You notice that there is a zero next to Number of residents at the top, right hand corner of the Arms bill. So, you ask your landlord whether increasing the number of residents from zero to 5 would make a difference to the cost. No, he replies without any hesitation. I notice the word ‘Domestic’ next to Consumer Scheme so I feel reassured, falsely it turns out.
Thank goodness for the internet. The internet research you do over a few weeks explains what the problem is. There are two residential tariffs: the residential tariff for everybody living in their primary residences and the misleadingly named domestic tariff, designed for empty or occasionally used second homes.
You are living in your landlord's empty or occasionally used home because he hasn't seen fit to register you as living in the property. Your landlord misinformed you as to whether or not increasing the number of registered residents from zero (domestic tariff) to 5 (residential tariff) would make a difference.
It makes a heck of a difference, especially if you are a household of 5.
You phone Arms. “You are not the account holder so we cannot speak to you about this account.” You visit the Arms premises and insist that you will stay until you have spoken to the manager. When you explain the situation, you are told that Arms does not do refunds and “Who’s to say that you did not choose to be on the (extortionate) domestic tariff?” My jaw hits the ground and I return home, totally shaken and at a loss as to how to proceed in this insanely Kafkaesque nightmare.
You confront your landlord and tell him that you will not be paying the 1 400 euro arrears, seeing as you had already overpaid by 1 600 euro. You hold him responsible and tell him that it was his fault that you had been overcharged. He retaliates by applying to the Maltese courts for a garnishee order on your bank account and salary. He is able to do this because your rental contract stipulates that you are to pay 100 euro ON ACCOUNT. In effect, you had committed yourselves to paying the entire Arms bill. You insist that it was his duty to make sure that you were on the correct tariff. You attend court once a month for years to get your money back.
You correspond with the Arms CEO to ask for a refund of your overcharge and to cancel the ‘arrears’. If this were to happen, you would get your money back and there would be no case to answer to. You would not have to attend court once a month for years. No, you are told. Arms does not do refunds. Arms cannot put a tenant on the correct residential tariff without the permission of the landlord, you are told.
There are three culprits in this scam. Your landlord, your letting agent and Arms. They all share some responsibility for this. But the money trail ends with Arms. So, to my mind, Arms is the biggest culprit. This is what takes the biscuit for me. The sole, state owned utility billing company is stealing money from tenants, and has done so for years.
More than the money that has been stolen from you is the horrifying realization that your government is behaving criminally.
Can you see that this is nothing to do with an outsider having a go at the Maltese about their country?
Malta is only 50 years independent. Its future as a country depends on us, all of us, insisting that our governments step up to the mark and do things correctly. We have achieved loads in these 50 years. Let's not take our eye off the ball. We have to ask ourselves: Are we on the right track? Are we holding our governments to account and shedding the "X'nista' nagħmel jien" attitude?
Malta deserves nothing less.