Consumer body complains over Sweb marketing

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The Independent Online

Industrial Correspondent

The Gas Consumers Council has complained to South Western Electricity over alleged aggressive door-to-door marketing to potential gas customers in the run-up to domestic competition in the South-west. The allegations have been vociferously denied by Sweb, which accused "some other" gas suppliers of waging a "dirty tricks" campaign.

Ian Powe, director of the Gas Consumers Council, said: "We are getting justified complaints about aggressive door-step marketing in the South- west. Salesmen have persuaded people to sign contracts which they later regret. Our advice is to sign nothing until people know what British Gas intends to offer customers who decide not to change their supplier."

The GCC is also thought to be concerned over the contracts used by Sweb for potential customers that use the words "application form" on the front page but are also contracts. Mr Powe said, however, that Sweb "has given assurances that it will change the form" and that anyone who has signed so far and is unhappy can cancel their contract.

The issue has provoked a fierce row, with rivals including Amerada Hess condemning aggressive door-step marketing and warning that any problem should not be allowed to blight the dawn of competition. A spokesman for Sweb denied any wrong-doing and pointed out that other companies are out there competing equally energetically for business.

The spokesman said: "We are leading the field in terms of the numbers of customers we have signed. Some other competitors who are not doing as well as us - and who I do not wish to name - are throwing stones." It is understood that Sweb has signed up more than 35,000 customers with at least six weeks to go before the planned April start date. Sweb also confirmed that it would change the wording of its contracts "in the interests of clarity and as a gesture of goodwill".

Ofgas, the industry regulator, declined to comment but was also thought to be concerned about the effect the row could have on the image of the industry as a whole. The debacle comes at a difficult time for the regulator, which is hoping that the South-west pilot, which covers 500,000 households, should be a fitting showcase for the extension of competition to the nation as a whole.

Ofgas is already battling to ensure that competition starts on schedule on 1 April, in spite of continued calls for postponement from British Gas.