THE chairman of a historic working men's club spoke of his relief last night after an energy company was ordered to pay back thousands of pounds it wrongly charged the venue.

Harry Ellison, chairman of Cockton Hill Working Men's Club (WMC), in Bishop Auckland, said the ruling brought an end to what has been a long-running dispute.

An ombudsman has ruled that a contract energy supplier Yorkshire Gas and Power (YGP) said it had with the club is invalid, ordered it to hand back cash it had charged – plus extra as a "goodwill gesture" – and write a letter of apology.

Mr Ellison, who has been club chairman for 15 years, said the nightmare began when he returned from holiday last August to find a bill from YGP demanding £1,200, even though he said he had never signed a contract with them.

The 74-year-old sought advice from the Ombudsman Services – which deals with complaints between consumers and companies – and continued to pay the monthly bills in the hope the issue would be resolved.

He suspected his signature may have been forged and reported the matter to the police. But YGP maintained Mr Ellison did agree to the contract and last month took the club to court over an unpaid bill for £6,535.

However, magistrates at Newton Aycliffe refused to grant a warrant as they could not be sure who was liable for the debt.

Now, the ombudsman has ruled that the contract was invalid.

In its report, the ombudsman said a recording of a call provided by YGP on August 25, 2017, clearly referred to "a forgery".

But the response from the call handler “fell below the standard expected” as she did not offer to terminate the contract, as she was legally obliged to do.

In her report, the investigating officer said: “I am not satisfied with the way the call handler dealt with this matter when Mr Ellison advised her of the situation, and when she had accepted that the transfer occurred due to the forged signature.”

She added: “Yorkshire Gas & Power should have taken action to return Mr Ellison’s supply without further delay as this was clearly an invalid contract.”

The ombudsman has ordered YGP to issue a written apology for the “shortfall in customer service”, refund the difference in charges based on the club’s previous rates and confirm it will not object to the club changing supplier or imposing termination fees.

YPG will also have to credit the club’s account with £125 as a goodwill gesture for the “time and trouble” caused.

Mr Ellison, who is now being helped by energy consultants Gareth Robson and Sam Jobling, of Efficient Energy, in Sunderland, said: “It’s a huge relief. I would get a letter every week or fortnight before and now I have not heard anything from them.

“We want all our money back and a written apology.”

Mr Ellison also advised other clubs to be cautious when it comes to energy suppliers, saying he had been contacted by several others in similar situations.

Mr Robson said he thought taking the club to court was a “scare tactic”.

He said: “I went to court and thought they (the energy company) surely must have known it was not going to go in their favour. As soon as we explained, the magistrates could see it straight away.”

YGP have until February 21 to implement all the conditions from the ombudsman’s report.

A spokesman from YGP said: “Although we disagree with the findings from the ombudsman, we respect their decision and the imposed stipulations will be implemented in due course.”

A spokesman for Durham Constabulary also confirmed they are still investigating an alleged fraud.

She said: “A 48-year-old man has been interviewed as a voluntary attender in relation to allegations of fraud by false representation and enquiries are ongoing.”