ARMS Ltd faces class action suit
EU citizens’ anger over paying more for utilities
Utilities billing company ARMS Ltd is some 10 days away from facing a class action lawsuit on behalf of a group of furious EU citizens living in Malta.
About 80 citizens have added their names to the lawsuit so far, alleging that ARMS is discriminating against non-Maltese by making it inordinately difficult for them to benefit from residential tariff rates.
The ARMS Class Action Group will continue to accept additional claimants until November 22. The legal process will then begin in earnest.
According to ACAG spokeswoman Patricia Graham, many people are holding back from joining the lawsuit for fear of angering their tax-evading landlords.
“Several landlords don’t pay any tax on their rental properties and don’t want their cover blown. And if people are happy with the property, they don’t want to upset their landlords,” Ms Graham said.
Tenants can be listed on utility bills as registered consumers but doing so exposes property owners to the taxman. Instead, Ms Graham said, many landlords kept utility bills in their own name and charged tenants directly.
“Most have no idea of how the system works when they first move to Malta and so just go along with it. It doesn’t help that estate agents seem entirely clueless about the system, either,” Ms Graham noted.
As a result, many such EU citizens receive utility bills charged at the so-called “domestic rate”, paying about 30 per cent more than those on the cheaper “residential” tariff.
To benefit from standard residential tariff rates, non-Maltese EU citizens must prove they are Maltese residents. But although such citizens must declare they reside here when applying for a local ID card, ARMS does not recognise this and insists on further proof.
Customers must put together multiple documents, from payslips to social security numbers, marriage certificates to proof of address, and present them to the Department for Citizenship and Expatriate Affairs in Valletta. In turn, the department issues them a registration certificate which clients then give to ARMS as proof of residency.
ACAG members say this is discriminatory because Maltese nationals only have to hand in their ID card to prove they are residents when applying.
An ARMS spokesman said that it usually took the company one week to process such applications. If the customer changed address, they did not need to resubmit residency documentation, the spokesman added.
But claims run directly counter to the experience of a number of such customers that The Times spoke to. One said that ARMS had taken “months” to process their application and that the bill they received while waiting was charged at the higher rate. Another simply laughed bitterly and asked: “Which week is ARMS talking about?”
ACAG spokesman David Reiling was similarly dismissive. “That’s absolute rubbish.
It took 81 e-mails and one month before ARMS confirmed my application,” he said, adding that each time he had re-applied following a house move, ARMS had insisted on him resubmitting all the necessary paperwork.
Ms Graham, who is a registered foster parent and regularly cares for Maltese children, said that ARMS did not even allow her to register the children as dependents and receive the concomitant bill reduction.
She threw her hands up in despair. “It seems I’m good enough to foster Maltese children but not good enough to get ARMS’ recognition of it. What nerve!”
The Government position is that ID cards given to EU citizens living here – and marked A for Alien – only prove temporary residency. Such ID cards will be phased out once newer cards are introduced. Until that happens, EU citizens living in Malta must dance to the bureaucratic tune or else receive bills charged at the higher tariffs, something ACAG members deem to be blatantly unjust but which ARMS says is simply in line with existing regulations.
ACAG members have written letters to the European Commission, MEPS and every Maltese MP asking them to petition on their behalf. The European Commission has already flagged the issue with the Government, sending it a letter of formal notice concerning the matter last September.
Ms Graham said that they had received “full support” from Alternattiva Demokratika, letters of support from some Labour MPs but no reply from any Nationalist MP.
“We know we have a case. I’m no lawyer, I’m just an ordinary woman. But someone has to speak up, because the way things are right now just isn’t right.”