British Gas in row over dirty tricks campaign

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The Independent Online
A senior public relations consultant employed by British Gas is handing out anonymous material critical of Clare Spottiswoode, director general of Ofgas, the industry's regulator.

One of the papers handed to the Independent by Angus Maitland accuses Ms Spottiswoode of being part of a "mafia which firmly controls energy regulation".

As one of two external PR consultants retained by British Gas, Mr Maitland answers to Peter Sanguinetti, the company's public affairs director. Mr Maitland's allegations include:

t Ms Spottiswoode is closely tied to a trio of academics who believe "that they have a duty and carte blanche right to remodel UK utilities".

t One of the three, Professor Colin Robinson of Surrey University, has a hatred of British Gas stemming back to the 1960s, when he worked for Esso. Part of his job was to negotiate contracts with British Gas. "The experience traumatised him and ... his attacks on BG have a personal character and he is determined to break-up the company". He is also said to have a "fixation" about breaking up monopolies. Mr Maitland's briefing note points out he is married to Dr Eileen Marshall, Ms Spottiswoode's deputy at Ofgas.

Another document, identical in format, says that another member of the group, Professor Michael Beesley, is an adviser to Ofgas and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is "not happy with Beesley's involvement as consultant to Ofgas and has raised eyebrows".

Mr Maitland, who heads his own company, the Maitland Consultancy, has been used by British Gas for four years. His other clients include British Telecom and the BBC. His speciality is discreet, personal advice to corporate leaders.

In an interview last year, Mr Maitland said: "Normally my advice is taken. British Gas has a strong case but the message has been submerged."

Earlier this year, Mr Maitland co-wrote a book, Through the Thicket, described in one newspaper as "a guide to PR men explaining how not to get caught spreading spurious stories".

But individuals and organisations mentioned in the document took issue with the conclusions of the briefing paper. The OFT said last night: "It is none of our business who is appointed as a consultant to Ofgas ... It is a British Gas matter."

Professor Robinson told the Independent that the claims about him were "ludicrous".

Ms Spottiswoode and Ofgas are not the only victims of anonymous "briefing notes" in the gas world. United Gas, a new competitor to British Gas, has also been attacked. Allegations distributed anonymously include that it acted in an underhand manner in applying for supply licences and its directors may have profited personally from this scheme.

Roger Turner, managing director of United Gas, said he had been aware for some time that "information purporting to discredit United Gas had been distributed to selected journalists in brown paper envelopes".

A spokesman for Ms Spottiswoode said the regulator was aware of the anonymous reports. "We are concerned this sort of thing is going on. We don't know why anyone is doing it - presumably to try to rubbish what we are doing. We have a requirement to control British Gas's monopoly prices and we will carry on."

Last night, Mr Maitland denied he was involved in a campaign against Ofgas or that in handing over the documents he was acting on behalf of British Gas, or that he had given similar documents to other journalists.

Asked about the document given to the Independent, he said: "I carry all sorts of stuff in my case. In my case you will find papers about the water and telecommunications industries." The Ofgas papers "were papers I happened to have with me". They were intended for background only and not for publication.'' He stressed that they had been handed out at the Independent's request at a meeting initiated by the newspaper.

A British Gas spokeswoman said she did not have sufficient information to comment.

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