Ofgas under pressure to get tough on pushy independent salesmen

Pressure was mounting last night on the gas industry watchdog, Ofgas, to introduce tough controls on doorstep selling as concern increased about tactics used by independent suppliers as they attempted to persuade households to switch from British Gas in competition trials due to start in the south of England.

Sue Slipman, the director of the Gas Consumers Council, yesterday called on Ofgas to intervene in a row between independent gas companies over a proposed voluntary code of conduct which would be policed by the industry. She said: "We keep coming across more instances of unacceptable practices. What we're saying to Ofgas is that if you get this wrong then you will be bringing competition into disrepute."

Ms Slipman has written to the Gas Shippers' Forum, the body which represents most independent suppliers, to complain about the code, which she says does not go far enough. A draft of the document arrived at the GCC's London headquarters on Friday afternoon with a reply demanded in just two hours.

In recent weeks the GCC has received growing numbers of complaints from consumers in the two trial areas, Dorset and the former county of Avon, and Kent and Sussex. Eastern Natural Gas, owned by Hanson, has dismissed one sales agent and suspended another after allegations they misled customers.

In the first competition trial, which began in the South-west of England in May, there were complaints about the high pressure tactics used by Sweb, the regional electricity company. Many consumers claimed they did not realise they had signed up to a formal supply contract after a doorstep sales visit.

Ofgas has attempted to distance itself from rows over marketing tactics, which it believes are the responsibility of the competition watchdog, the Office of Fair Trading. A spokesman said: "We just don't have the legal authority to do it."

The GCC says that "cold-calling" on the doorstep by a sales force can be acceptable as long as it is rigorously policed. Any code of conduct should include seven-day cooling-off periods for consumers and follow- up phone calls to confirm that customers understand what they have signed.