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TX: 15.09.03 – WIDOW SAYS SHE WAS “LET DOWN” BY PANIC ALARM SERVICE
PRESENTER: JOHN WAITE


WAITE
One and a half million elderly and disabled people in the UK use what is commonly known as a community alarm - a radio device worn round the neck - which means that if they get into difficulties they can immediately call for help simply by pressing a button. It's an easy convenient way to provide peace of mind for potentially vulnerable people and their relatives. And in extremis of course can be a lifesaver.

At least that's what Basil and Tessa Alexander from Bricket Wood near St. Albans thought when they bought an Aid Call System from Age Concern Enterprises, the commercial arm of the well known charity. In the event though it all went badly wrong and their case has led their MP, Kerry Pollard, to call for much tighter regulation of an industry where mistakes can mean the difference between life and death. We'll be talking to Mr Pollard in a moment.

But first Tessa Alexander has been telling Will Yates of her family's experiences with the service which was supposed to make their lives easier.

TESSA ALEXANDER
Basil was a very young nearly 80-year-old. He suffered from Parkinson's and had had it for 12 years but he loved life and in spite of his Parkinson's we led a remarkable life.

YATES
Basil and Tessa Alexander's determination to lead full and independent lives led them two years ago to buy a personal alarm system for Basil in case he got into difficulties while Tessa was out. They shopped around and finally decided to go for a big name company.

TESSA ALEXANDER
Age Concern had such a name and although they were a bit more expensive than anybody else we thought well they'll look after us. But how wrong we were.

YATES
The Alexanders paid just over £400 for the service and so on October 21st last year Tessa went shopping secure in the knowledge that Basil was only a button push away from help should he need it.

TESSA ALEXANDER
Three quarters of an hour I rang and there was no reply and on the way home my stepson rang me and said I've had a phone call from Age Call that dad was - some problem with his equipment.

YATES
In fact Tessa' stepson David had originally got a call saying Basil was in great distress. But when he called back to say his father wasn't answering the phone he was given a very different message, as this original recording of the call shows:

TELEPHONE CALL
Apparently there's something wrong with the unit there, that's why we can't hear him very well.

Right.

So we're going to make a report and have somebody come and see the unit. And I do believe he was testing.

Right.

So he's alright.

Okay.

TESSA ALEXANDER
I got home and found him lying on the floor. He had apparently had a heart attack and I immediately called an ambulance. He had cardiac arrest, severe pneumonia and a small stroke.

YATES
At first Tessa's only concern was whether Basil would live through his severe illnesses but she was already worried about the way Aid Call had handled the emergency. In particular the false reassurances they'd given about Basil's condition. But there was worse to come.

TESSA ALEXANDER
Two or three days later in the hospital my husband said to me - I told them I was having a heart attack. And that's when I rang Aid Call and told them what he'd said.

YATES
At first Aid Call did seem to accept responsibility for the confusion surrounding the initial emergency call and also that Basil had indeed told them he was having a heart attack. Like most such call centres the company records all calls as a matter of course and Tessa thought it would be a simple matter to confirm precisely what had been said.

TESSA ALEXANDER
The managing director of Age Call came to see us and to our amazement brought a transcript of a tape with him without the words heart attack on it. When we questioned him about the heart attack he said he would go down to the centre and listen to the tape and three or four days later he rang and he said - I have now listened to the tape, I'm putting it in the hands of my insurance company.

YATES
The insurance company involved was Royal Sun Alliance and Tessa asked them to send her a tape copy of Basil's initial conversation with the Aid Call operator. They refused but eventually agreed to send her a transcript. Tessa had more luck with David Botsford, from Age Concern Enterprises, the company responsible for running Aid Call, in January this year he did send her the tape.

TAPE
Mr Alexander can you hear me?

I'm having a heart attack.

TESSA ALEXANDER
The day I received the tape from him I received a transcript from the Royal and Sun Alliance. The tape had the words heart attack spoken by my husband on two occasions, the transcript did not have the words on it at all.

YATES
Despite this obvious inconsistency Tessa was still getting no joy from the insurance company who continued to insist the transcript was an accurate recording of events. And when she tried to talk direct to Age Concern Aid Call she was told they couldn't comment because the claim was being handled solely by Royal Sun Alliance.

TESSA ALEXANDER
At the end of the day they offered us £1800 and admitted the negligence. We thought that was an insult for what we'd been through - we'd been to hell and back and we thought that was an absolute insult.

YATES
That offer came in March and was an admission that Aid Call had got it badly wrong in telling Basil's son that his father was simply testing his equipment but not that Basil had said he was having a heart attack. Eventually in April the Royal Sun Alliance sent tapes and a full transcript of all the conversations between Aid Call and the Alexanders. Finally the tape and transcript of the emergency call matched but Tessa Alexander has now dropped her claim. Basil's health had gradually deteriorated over the months, he was admitted to hospital and died on June 17th. Tessa says the money is now irrelevant. What does concern her is ensuring that what happened to Basil doesn't happen to anyone else.

TESSA ALEXANDER
I think we were treated with contempt. We purchased a service that we thought would protect my husband, when he needed it most they let him down and he went through hell and the whole family went through hell.

WAITE
Tessa Alexander ending that report from Will Yates. Now obviously lots of questions there to put to Age Concern about the quality of their service and also how they handled that particular complaint. But the charity and its commercial arm have both declined our request for an interview. Will Yates is here though to tell us more - Will?

YATES
Well as you say a number of questions. I in fact sent Age Concern a detailed list of the specific questions we wanted answers to. For example, why was there this initial confusion when Basil made his emergency call, when he was clearly in distress and yet his son David was told that he was merely testing the line. And also obviously importantly why the words heart attack were omitted from the transcript of that initial call for help. And I'm afraid they have sent us a statement in lieu of an interview but it's less than enlightening. I've got it here and it says - and this is the full version:

"Age Concern was sorry to learn of the death of Mr Basil Alexander. We can confirm that Mrs Alexander made a complaint to us about Aid Call and that we responded. In the meantime we have reviewed Aid Call's alarm response procedures and are satisfied that the service meets the highest standards."

WAITE
Umm, not as you say very revealing. What about Royal and Sun Alliance?

YATES
Well they sent us a slightly longer statement but there again it doesn't answer this central question about why the words heart attack were left out of the transcripts. And they say that they are sympathetic Mrs Alexander's position and that they made every effort to settle the claim, including offering to pay Mrs Alexander's legal costs. And they also - in terms of the question about why the words heart attack were missed out, all they will say is that they categorically state that at no time have they changed any information in order to delay or avoiding paying the claim.

WAITE
Will thanks. Well Kerry Pollard, as I say, is the Alexander's MP, Labour member for St. Albans. He's here. Mr Pollard what's your reaction to this case?

POLLARD
Well I'm appalled by this whole episode where Mrs Alexander came to me in great distress and I could not believe what either Age Concern, Aid Call or Royal Sun Alliance how they'd dealt with the situation, completely left her high and dry, she came to me in desperation.

WAITE
So what do you think could improve the situation in future?

POLLARD
Well if Age Concern won't sign up to this voluntary regulatory system that's in place then the government must put in a mandatory one, that everybody must sign up to it. So that there are standards that everybody has to adhere to. They clearly are not adhering to standards. When I wrote to their chief executive he wrote back and said - We have reviewed our standards and they are now okay. Well I've no evidence of that, I've no evidence of what changes have been made and neither has Mrs Alexander. And I think it's in - they have an obligation to ensure that people in the future will be - with confidence - sign up to their system and will be looked after. As Mrs Alexander said it was pricier than any other system but because of the name of Age Concern that's what she signed up for.

WAITE
Kerry Pollard MP thank you very much indeed.




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