Fears for poor lead to gas discounts inquiry starts amid fears for poor

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Ofgas, the gas industry regulator, has launched an inquiry into British Gas discount schemes to see if they unfairly discriminate against millions of customers, writes Mary Fagan.

The Gas Consumers Council said the payment plans create three million losers, including "those who find it most difficult to afford the warmth and comfort that gas provides".

A scheme announced yesterday gives pounds 2 off per quarter for people paying within 10 days. But it excludes those using pre-payment meters or magnetic swipe cards at Post Offices .

Ian Powe, council director, said: "We welcome discounts. But we are increasingly worried about low-income people excluded from the scheme, who will now pay quite a lot more for their gas than those who can pay on time." Customers paying by direct debit already receive a 5 per cent discount and will now gain pounds 1 extra a quarter through a reduction in the standing charge.

Clare Spottiswoode, Director General of Ofgas, said: "While I welcome discounts in principle I will need to be convinced that other customers will not end up footing the bill."

But a British Gas spokesman said: "Anyone can switch to other forms of payment to get a discount. It is a matter of choice."