Nationwide Mobility, Royal Sun Alliance and Rok - A Cautionary Tale

Follow @ju90artist I don't usually write about consumer issues, but in this case I have made an exception because of the fact that the large majority of Nationwide Mobility's customers are, like me, defined as being 'vulnerable'.

Who are Nationwide Mobility? www.nationwide-mobility.co.uk/

Nationwide Mobility, who also operate as Aquability, advertise widely in the national press and also place flyers in magazines directed at disabled and older people. They sell accessible baths and showers to disabled and older people who are having difficulty in using their bathrooms. They are NOT members of the relevant trade association, the British Healthcare Trades Association, and the Disabled Living Foundation say that they don't meet their standards either; however, this does not stop a wide range of publications including those targeted directly at disabled and older people from accepting their advertising.

Who are Royal Sun Alliance? www.rsagroup.com/

Royal Sun Alliance describe themselves as being one of the world's leading insurance groups.

Who are Rok?

Rok advertise themselves as being 'the nation's local builder'. www.rokgroup.com/

What is this website about?

This website tells the story of what happened after I ordered a walk-in bath from Nationwide Mobility, and the ongoing nightmare that resulted when the responsibility for rectifying major damage to my property caused by faulty installation passed to Royal Sun Alliance and Rok.

In 2007 I ordered a walk-in bath with integrated bath lift from Nationwide Mobility, funded by a Disabled Facilities Grant from the local authority. I chose the company partly because of its national profile, and partly because the model of bath that they supplied had the taps placed in the centre of the bath. (Although this type of bath is designed for independent living, many models have the taps at the opposite end to the seat, meaning that the water cannot be switched on and off independently by the person using it.)

In July 2007 I duly shut down my business - I work from home, and apart from the noise nuisance, the office was needed to store furniture etc - emptied the hall, landing and bathroom as required to move the old and new baths in and out, and waited expectantly for the delivery. However, when the bath arrived it had been supplied with the wrong taps, and so would have been unusable by me because of the difficulties that I have with my hands. After a great deal of argument, Nationwide Mobility accepted that the bath had been ordered with a single mixer tap, not two individual taps, and took it back again. Nonetheless, this left me out of pocket both because of the loss of earnings from closing my business, and because I had had to pay someone to empty the hall, landing and bathroom, be there all day and then put everything back again regardless of the fact that the bath had not been installed as promised. As with all of the costs that I have sustained as a result of this episode, nothing has been refunded to me to cover this by any of the parties concerned.

In August 2007, when the bath was due to be redelivered with the correct tap fitted, I closed down my business again, paid again to empty the hall, landing and bathroom, and waited expectantly again for the delivery. The agreement was that the bath would be fitted and ready for use by the end of the day. However, at 4pm the fitter, Barry - who during the course of the day told me that he was actually a kitchen fitter rather than being a qualified plumber - left saying that he had a social engagement in Southend, leaving the whole bathroom unfit for use. At this point my PA and I inspected the work, and had serious concerns about the quality of it.

I therefore faxed Nationwide Mobility detailing these concerns in writing, asking them to contact me urgently. However, they failed to get back to me but phoned Barry instead, who soon arrived in a furious mood stating that the job should not be judged until it had been finished. My PA and I agreed that my PA should go up and speak to Barry, in case he preferred to talk to a man, but immediately my PA went into the bathroom Barry started shouting at him, and once my PA came downstairs again we could hear Barry throwing his tools around and were very alarmed. Fortunately for us, another workman arrived to work for me on an unrelated matter, so Barry was forced to calm down and behave appropriately.

Once Barry had left, my concerns remained. In September 2007 Nationwide Mobility agreed to send an inspector to check the installation, and he listed a number of faults.

A qualified plumber was later sent in to fix these faults as best he could given that the bath was now in situ. However, he failed to spot that Barry had connected the mains water supply with a plastic fitting that had to bear the whole pressure of the water going round an acute right angle, rather than plumbing it in with copper as he should have done at a different angle entirely.

Consequently, one morning a few weeks later, in November 2007, I had just got up when I heard the sound of water rushing through the pipes. There was no tap running when I checked the bathroom, but within seconds water started spreading out from under the bath and running through the floor into the kitchen. I tried opening all of the taps in the house to try to reduce the flow, but to no avail. By the time that I had managed to lift a floorboard and turn off the mains water supply's stopcock - no easy job with serious mobility problems and with your hands in splints - the kitchen ceiling was coming down and the room was sodden.

Nationwide Mobility sent the plumber back to replace the piping, which took all day. My PA had arrived by this time, and he cleared up the kitchen and bathroom, but the combination of the demands of this work and the ongoing stress of dealing with Nationwide Mobility meant that he then went off sick for a week.

I was then left - I thought (see below for the level of problems that still really existed) - with the difficulty of how to repair and redecorate the kitchen, which along with the rest of the house had only just been redecorated leaving me with no money over to do this again. I asked Nationwide Mobility to send a surveyor out to establish how serious the damage was, but they told me that this was entirely down to me to fund and organise. I pointed out that I was both on a low income and would need to pay someone to make the phone calls and supervise the estimates for me, making this impossible, but I was told simply that I should make a claim on my own insurance. I pointed out that if I did this I would face higher premiums for the rest of my time in the property, particularly as the claim would read 'flood damage' and I live near the Thames, but to no avail.

Nationwide Mobility effectively washed their hands of the whole issue from then on - at no time did they ever issue any form of apology either. Early in summer 2008, I discovered an entire bulletin board on a charity website full of complaints from older people about their service, and realised that unfortunately this lack of care was typical - the complaints were later removed from the website, I presume because of threats of legal action. However, you can click here to read a discussion about the problems caused to an older man by the misselling of a bath lift by the same company, and click here to read about similar complaints. Click here to read the results of a Which? investigation into the selling of mobility products, which gave Nationwide Mobility an overall rating of 'poor'.

Eventually I heard from their insurance company, which became part of Royal Sun Alliance along the way. First the insurance company tried to claim that my case was not against Nationwide Mobility, but against Barry because he, like all of Nationwide Mobility's fitters, turned out to be a sub-contractor. However, I pointed out that my contract was with Nationwide Mobility not Barry, and held fast. Then they tried again to make me claim via my own insurance company, but again I held fast. This was not an 'accident', but faulty workmanship, and Nationwide Mobility had been informed about this at a point when an inspection would have revealed it and it could have been easily rectified. Then they asked me to provide close-up photographs of the ceiling, knowing that I am a wheelchair user and could only do this if I paid someone else, which I couldn't afford to do. Then they asked me to take on all of the work of getting a survey and estimates, but again I pointed out that I would have to pay someone else to do this and could not afford it. (The very nature of Nationwide Mobility's customers means that very few people in my position would have been able to do this for themselves either.)

Eventually, Royal Sun Alliance sent round an inspector, who claimed it was a minor decorating issue only, and also claimed that the discoloured patches on the outside of the house where the flood had been were entirely coincidental. The damage, he said, would cost only a few hundred pounds to repair. More correspondence passed, urging me to take on the task of carrying out the work myself and to claim back the money afterwards. However, I was still not convinced - fortunately, as it later transpired - that this was only the minor decorating issue that Royal Sun Alliance had claimed. Since I would also have to pay someone to find the builders and get the estimates, I continued to insist that the responsibility lay with Nationwide Mobility and their insurers to sort the matter out.

Finally, in 2009 - the above process took more than 18 months - Royal Sun Alliance contracted Rok to conduct their own survey and to provide an estimate of the cost of rectifying the damage. Rok's surveyor took less than ten minutes to establish that the flood had damaged the kitchen ceiling to the extent that it was only being held up by the light fitting. The full estimate of the work required to rectify the flood damage included completely replacing the ceiling, and removing the damaged surface around the top of the wall and replacing it. The Rok representative stressed that they would guarantee the resulting work for three years and discussed in detail how they would make sure that everything was done with the greatest care and the least disruption possible, so I happily agreed to allow them to repair the damage - finally, as I hoped then.

Rok estimated that the work would take a week, so I arranged to shut my business (again) for this period. I paid someone to empty the kitchen, but as Rok had promised to double-dust sheet the whole room, I left the cupboard contents in situ and did not arrange to dustsheet the kitchen myself. Then the problems really started.

When Rok started to take down the ceiling, they discovered asbestos inside it - predictably, given the age of the property. The Rok builders had already caused great difficulty to myself and my PA by demanding that they took the ceiling down with both kitchen doors open in order to give them ventilation, rather than sealing both doors with tape to avoid the dust escaping into the house and garden as the original Rok supervisor had agreed. I was therefore relieved that asbestos contractors would be carrying out the work with nil dust created at all, but concerned at the impact on my business since this now meant the job taking well over a week to finish. I was more upset when I discovered that the asbestos contractors had dropped something on my new cooker while they were working, chipping it badly.

Once the ceiling was down, though, the focus changed back to Barry's original work. Although Barry should have strengthened the floor before fitting the bath - the seat-lift mechanism being extremely heavy in addition to the weight of the water and bath's occupant - in fact he had not only neglected to do this, but had punched out another floor board altogether in order to fit the drain rather than fitting it properly. The bottom of the bath was actually visible through the floorboards, sitting on just one rafter - which had been eaten away to less than an inch's thickness by dry rot. Instead of reporting the problem with the rafter when he started to fit the bath and halting work until the rafter could be replaced, Barry had carried on regardless. It would only have been a matter of time before the bath, probably with me in it, crashed through the kitchen ceiling.

Needless to say, this was a very upsetting discovery. Had I accepted Royal Sun Alliance's assurances that the damage was only minor, and Nationwide Mobility's assurances that the bath had been fitted properly, it is no exaggeration to say that I could have been seriously injured or even killed before much more time had passed. As it was, the discovery necessitated yet more unpaid time off work while the job dragged on, and yet more costs employing PAs to support me while the builders were in the house. Again, none of these costs have ever been refunded to me.

Rok were able to put up a second rafter alongside the first - although the bath never came out to strengthen the floor - and eventually a new kitchen ceiling was fitted. However, with each day that passed the builders became more demanding and less considerate, while I became more unwell with the stress of it all and my PAs started going down like ninepins because of the stress and the dust. Whereas Rok had originally promised to work with great consideration and care and with the minimum of disruption, in the event they wanted to leave the front door open all day - meaning that a PA had to sit on the stairs and effectively guard the house - and none of the promised dust-sheeting was carried out, creating huge amounts of dust and dirt. Needless to say, more PAs went off sick during this process, but I had no choice but to stay at the house although I had to send my assistance dog away for safety.

By the time that the ceiling was in place and painted, the whole of the kitchen needed redecorating because so much plaster and paint had been spilled on surfaces that had been left unprotected by the failure to dust-sheet. Since the gloss paint that I had used throughout the downstairs during the redecoration in 2007 had been discontinued, the new paint failed to match in with the rest of the house. More problematic was the fact that a whole tin of blue gloss was spilt immediately outside my gate and wasn't cleared up for 24 hours, making it impossible for me to get my wheelchair in and out of the house as needed. Then every cupboard was full of plaster, ruining the food inside - each time my PA cleaned the cupboards, more plaster fell down from behind. The huge amount of effort that the clear-up required from her was illustrated by the fact that the following day she passed out while at college.

At the end of it all, my business had been closed down for three weeks instead of the promised one, and I had missed funding deadlines for projects that would have kept me in work for the next five years. Three PAs had gone off sick; I had a huge bill for PAs who would not otherwise have been needed; and my kitchen was still in chaos. The overhead drying rack had been put back on the wrong beam, meaning that every time I open a cupboard door it crashes into it. More to the point, though, none of the tops of the walls had been stripped back and repaired as promised. Instead, the filler around the edge of the ceiling looked like it had been put on with a trowel, and it was already cracking off along one wall.

Today (autumn) 2010, I have a four-foot crack running through the filler along the edge of the kitchen ceiling; all of the walls need work where the ceiling meets them to strip back the excess filler; the original flood damage to the walls still needs repairing; the drying rack still needs moving; the cooker still needs replacing; and all of this will necessitate yet more redecoration afterwards - probably of the whole kitchen in order to match it in. Oh, and I still have all of the stains on the outside wall, which had only been newly painted in spring 2007.

So why hasn't all this been rectified and why haven't you received any compensation?

Needless to say, I made a claim for damages, initially via Rok. However, although Rok apologised (something they now deny) for all of the problems that their workmen had caused, and agreed to cover my PA costs, Rok refused to compensate me for loss of earnings at any more than 50% of what I pay my PAs, which given that I have three degrees and 25 years' experience, I saw as highly insulting. Rok were also, of course, not responsible for the fact that this had now dragged on for two years and had caused me huge amounts of stress in the process, so were not prepared to compensate me for Nationwide Mobility's failings. Nor were they prepared to cover the costs of the ruined food, which was their responsibility, although they would have paid to replace the cooker. Critically, Rok were not prepared to pay anything at all unless I signed to agree that my claim against all three companies had been settled in full.

Despite the root cause of the problems being Nationwide Mobility, their insurer Royal Sun Alliance told me that my case was with Rok, rather than with themselves as Nationwide Mobility's insurers. Rok - helpfully, I thought at the time - then told me repeatedly that if I took my case to the Ombudsman instead of continuing to negotiate with them, the Ombudsman would set the compensation rate for what had taken place while they were carrying out the repairs and then Rok would pay it. They refused to discuss anything further, telling both me and my PA that the Ombudsman was the route to go to get the correct amount.

Obviously, this was not a straightforward process either, particularly given my particular impairments and access needs. But eventually, in October 2009 - more than two years after the bath was fitted and I should have been enjoying it without any worry - I submitted my claim, having paid a PA to support me in preparing it. Several months later, in spring 2010, the Ombudsman responded - only to tell me that I was not covered by their process. This was because Rok were employed by Royal Sun Alliance rather than by me, and Nationwide Mobility, not myself, were Royal Sun Alliance's client. Royal Sun Alliance, the Ombudsman told me, had contacted them immediately they were notified that my claim had gone in to point this out to them.

By this time the PA who had been dealing with the claim had gone on maternity leave, so I had to wait for another few weeks before I could do anything else. When another PA came back from travelling, though, and she took the matter up with Rok, Rok told her that their original offer to compensate me at all had been withdrawn. It had been my choice, they said, to refuse it and go to the Ombudsman. When my PA further pointed out that I had only accepted Rok as the builders in the first place because of the three-year guarantee on their work, meaning that in any case they were responsibility for sorting out the remaining problems with the ceiling, Rok told her that Royal Sun Alliance were their client, not me, so they would only act to bring the work up to the correct standard if instructed to by Royal Sun Alliance. Royal Sun Alliance refused to engage in the process with her at all, and she found the whole matter so stressful that she said she could no longer deal with it for me.

So there you have it. The bath itself has been great - what a shame that suppliers have exclusive contracts with companies like Nationwide Mobility, rather than allowing small reputable plumbers to be able to source their products and install the baths themselves. But it has been a very high price to pay - my business made a loss for the very first time in 2009 because of the weeks it was closed - and as yet there is no end in sight. My kitchen still needs substantial work despite being newly redecorated and having a new cooker in 2007 when Nationwide Mobility first came into the house; I haven't had a holiday since then because I can't afford it; and in general my financial situation has been seriously compromised.

If you are thinking about using these companies, think about my story first.

NB: I have detailed correspondence to support the above; substantial photographic evidence is in the possession of Royal Sun Alliance.

If you have had a similar problem with a mobility product: The Office of Fair Trading is launching an investigation into the mobility aid market. You can email them with details of your experience at mobilityaids@oft.gsi.gov.uk. You can find out further details of their investigation at http://www.oft.gov.uk/OFTwork/markets-work/current/mobility-aids/

If you want to buy a mobility product: The British Healthcare Trades Association operate an independent arbitration process that is approved by the Office of Fair Trading - use a supplier who is a member or contact the Disabled Living Foundation for advice. This article from The Times - which references the Which? rating of Nationwide Mobility as being 'poor' - gives more information for anyone seeking to buy a mobility product.


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