Power companies warn of chaos

Electricity companies yesterday raised new fears of consumer chaos when the power market is opened to domestic competition next year. But after his second meeting with heads of the companies, John Battle, the industry minister, insisted that competition could still begin on time.
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Mr Battle admitted there were problems with competition which needed to be sorted out urgently, but he denied that the situation had deteriorated so far that the whole process should be delayed. It envisages phasing the start of domestic choice between April and September, with London Electricity, East Midlands Electricity and Southern Electric the last companies to open up their regions.

"Every company has signed up to the process. It can be achieved and I'm still confident we're on target for the original timetable," said Mr Battle. But he said some difficulties with testing of the complex computer systems, due to start from next month, had still to be resolved.

Power companies yesterday issued their strongest warnings yet about the potential for customer chaos, as households switch to different suppliers. One electricity group, which did not want to be named, said the whole process was "a shambles". It added: "This has the capacity to be a major disaster. It's just not going to happen and it's now inevitable that Battle will have to seriously consider a six to nine-month delay."

Some suppliers are understood to have criticised PA Consulting, the group acting as project manager for competition. One supplier suggested PA's most recent report, published last week, had misled ministers and Professor Stephen Littlechild, the regulator, about the seriousness of the problems.

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