Gas suppliers refuse to back watchdog

The high-profile watchdog set up to outlaw dubious sales tactics in the emerging domestic gas and electricity markets was facing a boycott yesterday by some of the leading independent suppliers.

Two of the biggest gas companies competing with British Gas, Eastern Natural Gas and Calortex, have refused to join the Association of Energy Suppliers (AES) after reservations about its effectiveness. The association was launched this summer by the Gas Consumers Council (GCC) and Electricity Association after complaints about door-to-door sales tactics in trials of household gas competition.

The dispute emerged as Clare Spottiswoode, the gas industry regulator, yesterday confirmed the next phase of gas competition, extending choice to 2 million homes in Scotland and the North-east of England, would start on 1 November.

The decision is likely to prove controversial after demands from several independent gas companies that the trial be postponed to February. They claimed computer systems being built by TransCo, the pipeline network run by BG, would not be fully tested.

Ms Spottiswoode said TransCo's innovative approach to its data management systems had made the early launch date possible, in time for the highest- spending winter quarter.

Sue Slipman, director of the GCC, yesterday joined the criticism of the November launch. She said: "We are worried that the early opening of the market will lead to higher levels of problems for consumers than would have been created by a later starting date. GCC does not have the resources to support a high level of consumer complaints."

The looming boycott of the AES is expected to lead to pressure for a fully fledged statutory sales code for the energy industry, despite Ms Spottiswoode's reluctance to incorporate a mandatory code into companies' operating licences.

The AES had expected all gas and electricity suppliers to join its ranks, with sanctions including public dismissal from the body after three warnings.

Eastern, the gas arm of Energy Group, said its membership was under review and it had no plans to join. A spokesman said: "We're confident the interests of our customers are already protected. We already have our own code of practice which is tougher than the AES's."

The company was at the centre of complaints about its sales tactics since the start of competition, resulting in the sacking of some sales representatives and a rebuke from Ofgas, the industry watchdog. Eastern said its own code had a 14-day cooling-off period for customers, double the seven- day period for the AES.

Calortex, which has campaigned for a statutory code of conduct, was also unhappy. "We haven't signed yet and we have concerns about the effectiveness of the sanctions," said a spokeswoman.

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