My youngest was 5 years old when a precautionary garnishee order was applied to our bank account and my salary. He was with me in the checkout queue and a mountain of shopping in my trolley. He was with me when I had to phone my bank from the supermarket checkout because my card didn’t work. I had to educate him about how a justice system works. He was under the misapprehension that going to court meant there was a chance I could end up in prison. I spent two years in court. Our family spent five months without a bank account and my salary frozen to the minimum wage.
That day in August 2013 was the day the bottom of my world fell out. We had done absolutely nothing wrong and yet, even though I did not have to attend Criminal Court, I did feel, as my son correctly perceived, exactly like a criminal. All I did was insist that we pay for our utilities on the primary residence tariff, not the secondary residence tariff. It put a huge strain on our family life as we pinched our way to the end of the month, every month.
In the 6 years since that day, I have tried to make Arms take responsibility for this incorrect application of the two tier residential tariff. I wrote to successive Arms CEOs, successive Ministers for Energy, the Prime Minister, the Office of the Ombudsman, the National Audit Office, the Inland Revenue, the European Parliament, the European Commission… My petition to the European Parliament – PETI 1737/2013 - was discussed three times in the European parliamentary committee of petitions. It is still open today. The Maltese government has made small changes to the billing system because of this pressure from the EU but many tenants – and some homeowners too – are still caught in this trap of overpaying for their consumption of water and electricity.
There are two residential tariffs – the domestic tariff and the residential tariff. To be on the correct tariff is not automatic. In order to receive the allowance per person of cheaper electricity and water units, everybody – homeowners included – has to be listed as an occupant of the property in Section B of Arms Form H.
The misleadingly named domestic tariff is meant for occasionally used second homes. This tariff is very expensive, especially when it comes to water. The rationale is that it does not matter if you pay more because you are in the property for only a short while. Therefore, you are allowed 33 cubic metres of water at €2.19 per cubic metre of water. Any consumption above the 33 cubic metres and you are paying an eye watering €5.14 per cubic metre of water, no matter how many people live in the property. With regard to electricity, the cost per unit on the sliding scale is more expensive plus you get no eco reduction.
The residential tariff is designed for people living in their primary residence. If you consume less than the allowance of 1750 units PER PERSON per year, you get an eco reduction. Additionally, the cost per unit of electricity on the sliding scale is cheaper than on the domestic tariff. Water is much cheaper on this tariff too - you are charged €1.40 per cubic metre of water if you consume less than 33 cubic metres of water PER PERSON per year. Any consumption beyond that and this is when you pay at €5.14 per cubic metre of water. Our household of 5 has never paid at this rate when on the residential tariff, with everybody registered on the bill via Arms Form H - change in the number of residents.
When we were tenants, we were overcharged on our utilities by 189%. The cost of our 35 month consumption of 17670 units of electricity and 417 cubic metres of water was €6186.01 on the incorrectly applied domestic tariff. On the correctly applied residential tariff, with all occupants registered on the Arms bill via Arms Form H, it would have cost us €3270.28. That’s an overcharge of €2914.73. Please note that the ONLY difference between the two screenshots below is the number of registered occupants:
The 35 month cost of our electricity and water consumption on the residential tariff:
The 35 month cost of our electricity and water consumption on the domestic tariff:
This episode marked the beginning of my work as an advocate for tenant rights. I have posted countless explanations of how tenants are being overcharged by Arms beneath countless posts of anxious tenants trying to understand why their utility bills were so expensive. I have set up two blogs and also a tenant support group, which supports tenants in navigating the minefield that is the post 1995 private rental market in Malta. This particular issue has been right up there amongst the many issues which has caused huge insecurity and stress for most tenants.
Notwithstanding my best efforts, the best efforts of others and the fact that the Small Claims Court ruled in July 2015 that both our landlord and I were jointly responsible for the €1600 euro ‘arrears’, still today many tenants are overcharged on their Arms bills. I see this in my tenant support facebook group and everywhere on social media. This sad state of affairs has been going on ever since the inception of this particular Arms billing scheme in 2009. How much has Arms overcharged thousands of tenants over the years, I wonder?
I was therefore very pleased to see that the 2019 Residential Leases Act - in force from January 2020 - includes clauses to put this injustice right. In his statement in parliament with regard to the second reading of this bill, Parliamentary Secretary for Social Accommodation Roderick Galdes announced that completed forms - Arms Form H, Change in the Declaration of Number of Persons, and Arms Form N, Authorisation of Verification of Pending Dues – will have to be included with the contract when this is registered. This will make sure that tenants are on the correct tariff for people living in their primary residence.
This is welcome news indeed. Wouldn’t it be also great if Arms repaid the money it has unjustly appropriated for itself from tenants? I can but dream, I suppose.