British Gas was yesterday plunged into fresh controversy over thousands of customers who were left without heating during the Christmas freeze. The Gas Consumers Council said it had warned the company in early December that there could be a disaster waiting to happen but that its words appeared to have been ignored.
Many of the customers have paid for pounds 100-a-year Three Star contracts which led them to believe that British Gas engineers would be sent within 24 hours of a call for help.
The company said that it could not guarantee compensation for all Three Star customers who were left without the normal service in the cold spell.
A spokesman said: "We have been in the same situation as other utilities (because of the cold weather) and we have been stretched. We will look at each claim on its merits."
Ian Powe, director of the Gas Consumers Council, attacked the company for blaming the cold snap, saying the problem was "fundamental" rather than seasonal. He said that in the year to the end of November 1995, complaints about Three Star contracts had already trebled to almost 1,500, and that he had written to the British Gas board voicing his concern.
Mr Powe said: "There were insufficient engineers to cope in the months to November and the problem was then exacerbated by the weather. We do not think that this is seasonal and we will be asking British Gas to either change the literature in its contracts or to take on more engineers."
Bob Frazer, director of operations at the British Gas service arm, admitted that the cold weather "caught us out", but said that the number of service engineers working in this area was "no different" than in the last few years. The company, which has 3 million contract customers, employs about 7,500 engineers on central heating and associated services. Mr Powe said he found it hard to believe that the numbers had not been culled in the sweeping reorganisation - and thousands of job cuts - that British Gas has been implementing throughout the UK operations.
The debacle is the latest in a string of problems and public relations fiascos that have dogged British Gas since the end of 1994. Its fall from grace in the eyes of customers has astonished City analysts as British Gas was once among the best in terms of public perception.
A spokesman for the service arm said he believed the increase in complaints about Three Star contracts was partly due to the publicity the company had had over the past year. "People are now more willing to make their point," he said.
Ofgas, the gas industry regulator, said that service contracts, where British Gas was open to competition, were not its responsibility. The regulator - like the industry as a whole - was bracing itself for the start of competition in domestic gas supply, which begins in April in an area covering 500,000 homes in the South-west.