The ever-increasing tide of complaints has prompted British Gas Trading to start new talks with the Consumers Council in order to provide "better service to people whom British Gas serves and the Council represents".
The rate of change in complaints about BGT rose from plus 11 per cent in January 1996 to plus 127 per cent in May 1996. This slowed in June to plus 101 per cent, but still represents more than double the June 1995 figure.
In a joint statement yesterday the Council and BGT said the aim was to enable British Gas "more accurately to diagnose the cause of complaints and to find solutions".
The unprecedented number of complaints were also causing bottlenecks for the Gas Consumer Council, and in BGT's own complaints procedure.
In response, the Council was forced to cut public access to its 11 regional offices by 40 per cent during June 1996. It did this, by disconnecting phone lines for switchboards, to enable staff to catch up with correspondence backlogs.
Ian Powe, director of the GCS, said: "During its restructuring, British Gas has not maintained the high standards it once achieved. But British Gas directors have assured the Council they really are committed to getting things back on track.
"We are looking forward to seeing results."
The biggest source of consumer concern has been British Gas Trading, which supplies all but 55,000 of the country's 19 million domestic customers, according to the joint statement.
Complaints against BGT have soared by 65 per cent during this year although the proportion of gas customers affected is less than 1 per cent. By contrast, complaints about British Gas Service have risen by only 4 per cent, reflecting improvements made after a difficult year in 1995, says the statement.
Mike Alexander, managing director of BGT, commented: "I am very concerned when customers do not receive the service they rightly expect. The speed of change necessary to get ready for the competition has included the introduction of one of the world's largest billing systems in just 18 months."
Mr Alexander continued: "Getting standards back to where they were is our number one priority. Delivering excellent service and value for money is the only way to maintain our market leading position."
The managing director said that BGT had launched several initiatives to achieve this, including extra customer operations staff, opening a new customer service office, investing an extra pounds 6m in computer systems and almost doubling the company's call-handling capacity.
Mr Alexander accepted that it would take time for these actions to feed through into lower complaints figures.