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Surge in number of gas disconnections

Up to 20,000 households a year could have their gas supplies disconnected, the Gas Consumers Council (GCC) warned yesterday, after a surge in the number of customers cut off in recent months.

Figures released today by the GCC show disconnections are running at a rate of 5,000 a quarter, an increase of 25 per cent on the 3,750 homes cut off in each quarter in 1995.

One possible explanation for the rocketing number of disconnections is that British Gas is catching up on its bad debt customers following a moratorium on disconnections last year.

Embarrassing difficulties with the new Tariff Gas Billing computer system meant that some homes which had paid bills on time were wrongly disconnected.

However, the GCC said that more and more low-income households were at the same time being moved on to pre-payment meters, a policy which should have tended to reduce the number of disconnections.

Pre-payment meters, which mostly use a smart card to charge up gas units, are used by suppliers as an alternative to disconnection. The GCC also highlighted figures from the Consumers' Association last week, which showed pre-payment customers had to pay up to 37 per cent more for gas in the competitive market than homes paying their bills by direct debit.

Sue Slipman, GCC director, said it was too early to say whether the higher disconnection figures reflected a tough new policy by British Gas, which could be followed by the emerging rival independent suppliers.

"We are worried that vulnerable consumers facing debt problems could be worse off in a competitive market unless the good practice established by the old British Gas can be realised as a standard in the new market and implemented by all suppliers," Ms Slipman warned.

The disconnection statistics have become the responsibility of the GCC recently, a move which reflects the start of the domestic gas competition trials. By next spring all 20 million homes will be able to choose their gas supplier.