Energy crisis as grid warns of power cuts

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Britain's privatised utilities yesterday became embroiled in controversy again after it emerged that complaints about British Gas more than doubled last year and the National Grid warned of power cuts tonight.

Labour called for a public inquiry after the Gas Consumers Council, which last year recorded the highest number of complaints - 49,104 - for almost a decade, accused British Gas of misleading people on "peace of mind" service contracts. Most of those approaching the council had complained but failed to receive satisfactory replies.

A warning sent on Saturday by the National Grid to the 12 regional electricity companies in England and Wales said up to 2 million homes could be left without power at around the 5pm peak this evening. The industry was braced for record peaks in electricity demand if the cold weather persisted.

The crisis is partly due to British Gas calling in its rights to cut off very large users who get cheaper gas in return for agreeing to interruptions in supply when demand from other consumers soars.

Last night Labour demanded a public inquiry, urging the Select Committee on Trade and Industry to look at the performance of the privatised utilities. Nigel Griffiths, Labour's consumer affairs spokesman, accused the Government of sitting "impotently on the sidelines" with "no policy except to hand over responsibility to irresponsible energy companies. These services are falling apart."

The latest blow to British Gas comes just weeks before it is due to lose its monopoly over domestic customers, with competition scheduled to start in the south-west of England in April.

Ian Powe, director of the Consumer Council said that the escalation in complaints came despite warnings issued 12 months ago that British Gas needed urgently to restore customers confidence before rivals entered the marketplace.

Roy Gardner, widely tipped to succeed Cedric Brown as chief executive, said: "Severe weather has stretched resources even further as our service business experienced double the normal number of calls."

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