Charter Marks at risk, minister warns utilities

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Privatised utilities - including the water companies and British Gas - could face losing the coveted Charter Marks, Roger Freeman, the Public Service Minister, warned yesterday as it emerged that Yorkshire Water had applied for one.

The company is seeking the right to cut off customers in Halifax and Bradford on 24-hour rotas. Yorkshire Water said its application for the award - given to organisations that provide outstanding public service - was made earlier this year, before the drought. "We made it on the basis of customer service improvements that we are putting in place," it said.

Three more of the 10 privatised authorities have also applied, while the first three to win the award - Severn Trent, which has imposed a hose-pipe ban, and Anglia and Wessex - have their Charter Marks up for renewal. British Gas is already at risk of losing its award after a dramatic rise in complaints and an investigation by the Citizen's Charter Unit. In spite of the six-month action plan launched in June and aimed by British Gas at retaining the award, complaints to the Gas Consumers Council ran at 22,608 between January and August this year more than double those in the same period last year.

Mr Freeman yesterday warned that "we take the award of Charter Marks, including their renewal, very seriously indeed". He was looking to the officials and advisory committee that decide the awards "to take a very, very tough line", Mr Freeman said at the launch of the fourth annual report on the scheme. "This is not a primary school sports day where everyone gets a prize and a pat on the back. This is a serious business."

Some observers believe the removal of at least some awards at the end of their three-year run is necessary to ensure the scheme's credibility.

Mr Freeman also said he was considering rewarding winners with extra resources and creating a national league table of cities, counties and constituencies by bringing together information on schools, hospitals and other services.

Mr Freeman said the Charter's achievements included a reduction from 200,000 patients waiting more than a year for operations in 1990 to 32,000, and a cut from about 95 days in supplying a passport to a maximum 15-day wait.