Gas complaints hit new high

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The Independent Online

More complaints about British Gas have been received so far this year than during the whole of 1994, the Gas Consumers' Council disclosed yesterday.

The company's chief executive Cedric Brown - who has been at the centre of some of the controversy over a 75 per cent rise that took his salary to pounds 475,000 - yesterday apologised for the ''difficulty" customers had faced during the "massive" corporate changes of the past 18 months.

Complaints to the consumers' council began to rise in the spring of 1994, as British Gas became embroiled in a succession of controversies over executive pay, job cuts, service reductions and direct-debit payment discounts. By the start of 1995, widespread hostility from customers was apparent. Complaints in January were 172 per cent up on January 1994.

After criticism from the consumers' council, the Government warned British Gas that it was in danger of becoming the first company to lose a charter mark for public service.

But the council said yesterday there were suggestions that the company was recognising the error of its ways and had begun to address public concerns.

Its director, Ian Powe, said the council had received 24,999 complaints in the first six months of 1995 compared with 24,359 during 1994 and 20,427 in 1993. "In fairness, the rate of increase in complaints is beginning to slow," he said. "What that means to us is that the measures which British Gas has put in place after realising that it had gone too far in staff cuts, closure of customer services facilities etc, are starting to pay off. It has been taking on more staff and re-opening some of the customer service facilities it closed."

The news came as it was revealed that British Gas profits had dipped for the first half of the year. The company blamed a series of warm winters, new supplies and regulatory constraints for the surplus of gas, that forced down prices.

Pre-tax profits fell to pounds 797m from pounds 853m in the first six months of 1994. Earnings per share were cut to 9.8p from 11.3p, but the interim dividend for shareholders has been held at 6.4p per share.

Labour's consumer affairs spokesman Nigel Griffiths accused the Government of sitting on the sidelines as British Gas went from bad to worse. "The message on the day that these profit figures are announced is that British Gas made pounds 1.368bn in profits last year, pounds 43 every second, but slashing jobs and axing customer services has hit customers hard. 18 million customers are losers. Directors are big gainers, sharing big pay increases and share options."

New gas contracts, page 20