The Curious Case of Debenhams’ CSR

Posted:  June 6th, 2011 by:  The Environment Site comments:  0

Somewhere in the last month or so I’ve been exceptionally privileged to have found myself chatting to a true institution in British broadcast media.  Someone like John Craven, but as this conversation was in confidence so I cannot tell you who.

To make life simple, let’s call this person John .. and let’s clarify that it’s NOT John Craven!

John has a Debenhams credit card and he’s recently moved house.  Like any good credit card holder he a) is always on top of his credit card obligations, and b) informed Debenhams of his change of address.

Then suddenly the person living at the old address starts receiving letters from Santander demanding payment on an outstanding credit card.

What?

After a bit of digging about, John discovered that Santander was the bank which underwrote his Debenhams credit card and that there’d been a bit of a mix up with his payments.  Debenhams refunded the late payment charge which had been taken from John’s account in error but there, it appears, is where the buck stops.

Crucially, when John asked what had gone wrong he was referred by Debenhams to Santander and when he asked for an apology Debenhams were not forthcoming.

A righteous mess and, you may think, Debenhams did well to refund quickly once the error was pointed out.  True .. but….

So often in corporate responsibility reports and policies you see a statement saying “we will always act within the regulatory framework of the country of our operations”, or some other phrase.  In other words “we won’t break the law”.

It’s always astonished me that companies feel it necessary to put this is black and white.  This anecdote from Debenhams shows why.

Debenhams acting illegally?

That Debenhams took money for a charge which was not owed was not in itself illegal, although some minor infraction of Direct Debit regulations may have made it so.

However Debenhams’ refusal to apologise is certainly unethical, and their treatment of John is definitely illegal.

The crux of both issues is that John had a Debenhams card, not a Santander one.  His contract was with Debenhams, and it’s of no concern to him to whom Debenhams sub-contract the service to.  This is basic contract law.

So.

John has passed on details of his change of address to Debenhams.  From his point of view it is Debenhams’ responsibility to get his address changed, not Santander’s.  That demand letters started turning up at John’s old address is a breach of the Data Protection Act and although the letters were coming from Santander it was Debenhams’ responsibility to ensure the address was correct.

Continuing on, Debenhams referred John to Santander once they’d refunded the money.  This they are not allowed to do.  Debenhams are contracted to John to provide a service.  Should that service fail they don’t have the option to refer John to the subcontractor : they have to explain and make good themselves.  So this too was illegal.

As a side note, the new occupier of John’s old house was so upset by the whole affair they threatened legal action against John!

So two illegal acts and a distraught third party threatening legal action because of Debenhams (not Santander) failing to fulfil their basic responsibilities.  I’m still lost as to why Debenhams believe an apology isn’t necessary.

So let’s Argos it

John, understandabily, is not a happy bunny but he tells me he’s run out of steam and probably won’t be persuing the matter any further.  I know John has done some time as a consumer affairs champion .. that he feels exhausted by the whole thing tells you something of the battle which has had to be gone through just to get the refund.

The sad thing is that this case is by no means unique.

A few years ago I bough an electric heater from Argos. The heater had a three year warranty and about 3 months short of the three years it broke down.  So I took it back to Argos to demand a refund.  “Oh no,” said Argos, “You have to contact the manufacturer.”

Rather than get into a protracted arguement about contract law, I pointed out that the manufacturer’s own instructions said that I should return the item to the retailer in case of breakdown.  At this they folded, and I’m immensely grateful to that manufacturer for putting my rights into black and white rather than allowing Argos to give me the run around.

I remind you again of the common “we will abide by the laws of the country in which we operate” statements in CSR policies and reports.

It’s rubbish.

If CSR means anything it should mean that companies take responsibility for the contracts they enter into with their clients and customers.  However, it appears most appear to want to shift the blame if possible, whether it’s legal or not.

This is deceitful, illegal and wrong.  So forget all about Carbon Emissions and Human Rights .. let’s at least have companies who are prepared to stand up their statutory duties.

Picture Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mdpettitt/5251522592/

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