Complaints about gas firms up 80%

THE number of complaints against independent gas suppliers rose by 80 per cent last year as more of the domestic market was thrown open to competition, according to figures released today.

The annual report of the Gas Consumers Council shows that complaints against independent suppliers rose from about 4,500 in 1996 to just over 8,000 in 1997. However, the overall level of consumer complaints dropped by 30 per cent to 53,637 as British Gas saw a near 40 per cent reduction - in 1996 the number of complaints against British Gas taken up by the GCC was just over 51,000 but the figure fell to just over 36,000 in 1997.

The bulk of the complaints, against both British Gas and independent suppliers, continued to concern disputes over the amount of gas consumed and various types of payment and discount plans.

Although complaints against British Gas were sharply down from the unprecedented level they reached in 1996, the GCC's report points out that they were still around the same level as in 1995 and more than double the level recorded in the early Nineties. The GCC says the number of customers who failed to get satisfaction from British Gas was "still far too many when measured against the benchmark of earlier years".

By the end of the year, 4.5 million households in the South-west and South, Scotland and the North-east were free to shop around for a supplier. There are now 20 rival suppliers in the market.

The independent supplier attracting the largest number of complaints to the GCC last year was Calortex, a joint venture set up by Calor Gas and Texaco. It was the subject of 1,457 complaints, followed by Eastern Natural Gas, part of the Eastern Electricity group, which recorded 919 complaints. Northern Electric, which was the subject of a rebuke last week from the gas regulator Ofgas over its doorstep selling techniques, received 292 complaints.

But the GCC adds that, in general terms, suppliers with higher levels of complaints also tended to account for a greater proportion of customers who had switched from British Gas.

Despite the overall decline in complaints, the GCC detected a sharp rise in complaints from industrial and commercial consumers. Category A complaints - those dealt with by the GCC directly - leapt by 156 per cent to 1,677 while category B complaints referred to the companies rose by 111 per cent.

The GCC said that the increase was a cause of "serious concern". It added that since this sector of the market had been open to competition since 1992 it would have expected the level of complaints from customers switching suppliers to have fallen.

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