Consumers still waiting for lockdown refunds
Consumers have complained that they are still struggling to get refunds for activities booked before lockdown - with some out of pocket by hundreds of pounds.
Campaign groups have warned that the problem is still widespread, with many people having not received money back even for bookings they made before coronavirus was a problem in the UK.
One Aberdeen family had a seven month battle to reclaim £130 in a deposit for a family meal to celebrate an 18th birthday in May, after a steakhouse repeatedly refused to refund them, despite a court order instructing the firm to pay out.
Meanwhile, another holidaymaker is locked in a battle with AirBnB to regain money for a trip to Scotland this week - which he is no longer able to take due to the lockdown travel rules in England.
Kate Morrison, spokesperson for Citizens Advice Scotland Markets, said: “As Scotland’s biggest provider of consumer advice, we want to give a voice to all those who have been let down in this way. It’s upsetting enough to have an event like a holiday cancelled, without then finding that you’re not getting your money back.
“Covid-19 is not the fault of any company, but nor is it the fault of their customers. The bottom line is that if you pay for something and don’t get it, you should get your money back. Not in vouchers but in the money you paid. Refusal to comply with this simple principle, using covid-19 as an excuse, is simply wrong.”
In January, when coronavirus had not yet reached Scotland, Annie Milton booked a meal for 13 family members to celebrate her son’s milestone birthday at the Aberdeen branch of Miller and Carter on 24 May. She paid a deposit of £130 for the meal.
In March, the country went into lockdown and the restaurant was shut.
Her partner, Ian Baxter, said: “During May, the restaurant was closed on lockdown. Nothing was heard from restaurant staff on 24th May or during the several weeks that followed.”
After the restaurant reopened, the family spoke to staff about refunding their deposit.
“Annie called there in person and spoke to a member of staff who identified himself as a manager. She explained the circumstances and asked him for a refund. This was flatly refused by the manager who claimed that her money was 'gone’, whatever that meant. When she insisted on a refund, he offered her vouchers, which she declined to accept as they were really of no use to her.”
The family sent repeated letters and called the restaurant and, after the deposit was still not refunded, took the case to Aberdeen Sheriff Court. A civil action was completed by 14 August and a Court Order was issued on 26 October stating that Miller & Carter Aberdeen were instructed to pay the family £149: the original £130 deposit plus £19 expenses.
A day later, the family received a letter from the restaurant manager claiming that they had tried to contact Ms Baxter repeatedly and that they had been willing 'all along', to pay the deposit.
The money - plus court expenses - was finally refunded over the weekend.
Mr Baxter said: “I do understand that there are always two sides to every dispute but all the foregoing, I respectfully suggest weighs heavily against Miller & Carter Aberdeen and the Court, an objective arbiter, has decided the matter in our favour.”
He added: “It beggars belief that any manager of any restaurant anywhere could treat a genuine customer in this appalling manner.”
Mitchells & Butlers, parent company of Miller and Carter, last month announced an unspecified number of redundancies at its brands, which also include Harvester and Toby Carvery.
Accommodation providers have also come under fire from tourists who have been forced to cancel their trip due to changing restrictions relating to coronavirus.
The Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) has previously taken action against holiday lettings firms including Sykes Cottages and Vacation Rentals – forcing them to reverse their policies of refusing to give refunds to customers.
Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert, said: "Millions of people had holidays, events and bookings cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year and it is unacceptable that months later many are still waiting for a refund or have been left out of pocket.
"In most cases, when an event or holiday is cancelled customers should be entitled to their money back. If options like rebooking or accepting vouchers don't work for the customer, businesses must ensure they are doing the right thing and refunding without further delay."
Matthew Railton, from London, booked a trip to Scotland for this week, staying at a range of different accommodation. However, the introduction of a new lockdown south of the border, plus increased travel restrictions in parts of Scotland due to the new levels system brought in by the Scottish Government, meant he could not longer travel.
When he tried to obtain a refund from AirBnB, he was told it would not be covered by the firm’s Covid cancellation policy and that he should try to negotiate with his host to get his money back.
He said: “I had booked a trip to Scotland, which now cannot take place following the First Minister's travel ban and English lockdown - I live in London. Of the places we intended to stay, one was via Airbnb. The other places, in line with guidelines, have provided a full refund.”
“After notifying them that I of course, would not be able to stay, I was told that the only way to get my money back is to cancel, forfeiting 50 per cent of the £440 fee. This is despite the fact that the visit would be against the guidelines of both UK and Scottish governments.
“This would appear to be in contradiction to the guidelines published by the CMA.”
A spokesman for Miller & Carter Aberdeen said: “We accept the Court’s findings however we are disappointed in the action this guest decided to pursue. Unfortunately in March the entire hospitality industry across Scotland were forced to close for a number of months due to the pandemic, with the entirety of our team placed on furlough and unable to work.
"When returning from furlough to reopen the business the team were faced with a backlog of bookings to rearrange and deposits to refund to guests. The overwhelming majority of our guests were happy to receive this refund in the form of a gift card. This was offered to the guest who asked for the deposit to be returned in monetary value instead.”
He added: “As we explained, we were happy to do this and we tried on numerous occasions to contact the guest by calling and via email to receive the appropriate details to refund the deposit, however on each occasion we reached out we were unable to get through to the phone number provided and received no response to our numerous email communications.”
“We are saddened that the guest felt the need to take this action, especially after we made every effort we could to refund the full amount."
AirBnB said bookings made after March 14, when the WHO declared a global pandemic were not entitled to a full refund.
It said: “While hosts set their own cancellation terms, the majority have policies that allow guests to cancel without penalties.