British Gas complaints have doubled

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Complaints against British Gas are at an all-time high, according to a report by the Gas Consumers' Council published last night. The report reveals that 30,000 people have complained about poor service and falling standards so far this year - more than double the figure for the same period last year.

British Gas admitted tonight that "levels of service fell in the early part of 1995" and it apologised to customers.

The company blamed the problems on "enormous changes" in the company required by the Government's timetable for introducing competition to the domestic gas market from next year.

But it now risks losing the Government Charter Mark it was awarded for meeting performance targets under the Citizen's Charter.

The report also said that 9,000 families were left at some stage with no hot water, no gas to cook with and no central heating. Because British Gas has re-organised into four separate business units, customers are very confused about whom they should complain to.

The Gas Consumers' Council director Ian Powe, speaking on last night's Watchdog programme on BBC TV, said he would not support British Gas if it applied for a Charter Mark today.

"I'm afraid they have paid off far too many of their highly paid staff. They're taking on temporaries who are not of the same level of training - and there's confusion in British Gas about who is dealing with what."

The company said that when service levels fell, it brought in extra staff and freephone helplines and that "99.9 per cent" of its customers had not complained.

"We are proud of our Charter Mark which reflects our previous high level of customer service and we believe we should retail the award," it said in a statement.

British Gas's monopoly of supply to Britain's 18 million domestic gas users is to be phased out over the next few years.

The company has been repeatedly criticised in recent months over various controversies including the pounds 475,000 salary of the chief executive, Cedric Brown, and the decision earlier this month to raise the cost of service contracts.

Three million gas users have contracts and the Gas Consumers' Council has said the rise could have serious safety implications if many people decide to go without a regular service or rely on "cowboys".

Earlier this year Mr Brown apologised to British Gas customers for poor service. Frequent complaints prompting this apology included meters being read wrongly, inaccurate bills sent out and only four per cent of customers who phoned in to complain getting through in the time laid down by regulators. This itself is a serious breach of British Gas's operating licence.

The first domestic competitors to British Gas will be phased in next April with some 50,000 customers in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Industry analysts predict that the first non-British Gas suppliers will be existing utilities such as privatised water and electricity suppliers.

Mr Powe said, however, that he would not want to see British Gas lose the Charter Mark because it would have an adverse effect on the company's morale. "We would much prefer it to get back on track with some persuasion from the Government."