This week, I finally started real (i.e., legal) action against nPower in respect of the proofs it required in order to demonstrate a “change” of name.
The case is simple – although it is also quite obvious that many individuals don’t quite get the concepts involved. At base, it is unlawful to discriminate in the provision of good, services, employment, etc. in respect of various criterion (aka “protected characteristics”).
In law, there are two kinds of discrimination: direct, and indirect.
Most people understand the first. If I advertised a job and stated on the ad “no blacks”, “men only need apply” or similar, this is obviously direct discrimination. You will find that direct discrimination is far less common nowadays, since it IS so obvious and people understand it is wrong.
But that’s not the case with nPower – and a number of similar organisations. They may apply policies that discriminate “indirectly”. What’s that?
Well, I would be discriminating indirectly if I applied a condition to provision of goods, services, etc. if that condition has an adverse impact disproportionately on one group or other.
“No-one under six foot” would be indirect discrimination, since although that condition applies to all job applicants, it is clear that more women than men would be unable to meet that condition. But the condition can be more subtle: individuals required to work on Sundays could be construed as indirect discrimination on religious grounds. Ditto a condition requiring staff not to wear hats, which could impact on groups whose religious observance requires them to cover their heads.
Likewise, a particular rostering pattern could be held – as it has been – to be discriminatory because it fails to take account of the childcare needs of single mums. Even postcode targeting of services could fall foul of the indirect discrimination provisions, because selection by a particular social demographic could also impact on the racial mix of service provision.
This is at the heart of my dispute over requiring documentation to show a name change. In essence, it creates an additional burden for anyone wishing to obtain the service provided. In this case, energy – but the same argument would apply elsewhere.
Tesco Clubcard, for instance, requires certification before it will change the name on a Clubcard account: some might consider this excessive, since Tesco Clubcard can hardly be considered to be a critical service.
Women and the transgendered are far more likely to change name than men – and the systems in place, supposedly there for our “security” make great play of the need for documentation in this respect. They therefore place a requirement – to provide documentation – that is not applied to any other aspect of a given service.
For most of the organisations that demand this sort of “proof”, it is quite possible to carry out all manner of significant transactions, including paying bills, withdrawing or transferring money, setting up standing orders, and so on, on simply “proving” one’s identity – usually managed by asking various pre-arranged security questions. Anything and everything, it seems, apart from changing your name.
So you end up with the peculiar situation where a customer can have the following discussion: “I am Joan Smith”. Yes. “You are sure I am?” Yes. “And you are happy to move £10,000 out of my account on the basis of proofs already seen?” Yes.
“So now, can you change my name to Joan Brown?” No.
The logic is not there.
Organisations can claim – by way of legal exemption – that their action is proportional. There are three tests: that this is the only means of achieving the aim (ie there isn’t a non-discriminatory alternative) ; it actually achieves the aim; and the approach provides benefits that outweigh the negative effects of the discrimination.
In the case of nPower (and other organisations), this simply doesn’t wash. Alongside my coruscating wit, my charm, and my flashing fingers (well, I’m a writer, doncha know?) I can also boast twenty-plus years working with IT systems and systems security. I know this territory rather well.
Not only does nPower’s approach FAIL to achieve the intended result in respect of security – because obtaining the proofs required such as deed poll is actually a trivial act costing a few pounds and taking very little time at all – but there are better more secure ways of doing this.
I have offered, many times, to explain to them how they can achieve this. But they have adamantly refused to engage in debate, preferring instead to run out a load of platitudes around identity theft, fraud, security, etc. Sure: if this was the only way of achieving those aims, I’d be with them. But it isn’t.
I sincerely hope we can resolve this without court action. But if worst comes to the worst, we will go to court on it. The EHRC have expressed some interest – subject to reviewing the actual case, of course. And I am now talking to a number of Equal Rights lawyers who also see this as a suitable case for trying.
To be honest, though, in a world where the Inland Revenue, the NHS and the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages doesn’t demand documentation, the idea that an energy utility does is bizarre.