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Oftel attacks BT's 'misleading' claims

The simmering row between BT and the industry watchdog, Oftel, over allegations of anti-competitive behaviour exploded yesterday when the regulator, Don Cruickshank, rapped the company for making "misleading or just plan inaccurate" claims about rivals.

In an unusually strongly worded statement, Mr Cruickshank issued an order forcing BT to tighten up the activities of its marketing team. He said there was "a very serious gap between BT's statements of good intent about trading fairly and statements made by customer-facing staff which are unsubstantiated".

Oftel investigated a formal complaint by the Consumers' Association after Which? magazine published transcripts of interviews with staff in BT stores and on special phone lines set up to deal with customers contemplating switching to cable firms. The watchdog said out of a total of 48 interviews, 30 were "unsatisfactory from a fair trading point of view".

Mr Cruickshank has previously welcomed moves by BT to beef-up staff training and had been particularly pleased with the creation of a special department to deal with compliance matters. But yesterday he said these actions had not been enough, accusing the company of neglecting internal compliance procedures, a lapse which he said "favours BT by frustrating customer choice".

While admitting to "occasional lapses" by staff, BT vehemently denied it had deliberately misled customers. A spokesman said it had only detected two "genuine" occasions in the Which? evidence where employees had overstepped the mark.