Centrica gains ground in battle with gas rivals

The opening up of the domestic gas market is provoking a consumer backlash with customers returning to British Gas in their thousands and complaints rocketing against independent suppliers.

Centrica, the demerged trading arm of British Gas, said yesterday that it was winning back customers at the rate of 3,000 to 5,000 a week with the help of lower tariffs and innovations such as its Goldfish credit card, contents insurance and home security products. So far 80,000 of the 980,000 customers that deserted British Gas have returned.

Meanwhile, the Gas Consumers Council said it had received as many complaints in January from consumers switching suppliers as in the last six months of 1997. Sue Slipman, director of the GCC, said an unprecedented 1,372 complaints were filed last month against 3,170 in the whole of 1997. Where suppliers could not cope, the GCC would be urging Ofgas to intervene and prevent them from transferring customers.

The electricity company Eastern hit back saying it had signed up more than 175,000 customers in the North West and Yorkshire - which open to competition today - offering pounds 75 off the average bill.

Roy Gardner, Centrica's chief executive, said he had not given up hope of preventing electricity companies from poaching gas customers until their own markets are open. He is meeting the John Battle, the energy minister, to demand higher fines and ensure the RECs meet their September deadline.