Advice on conserving energy criticised: Electricity companies and British Gas 'fail' survey

THE GAS and electricity companies are giving 'hopelessly inadequate' advice on energy saving in the run-up to the imposition of Value Added Tax on fuel, the Consumers' Association said yesterday.

The association is concerned that the introduction of VAT next year will involve real hardship for many people, and it wants better advice on reducing bills. There is also a growing acceptance that cuts in energy consumption are needed to help the UK meet environmental obligations.

Each region of British Gas and each electricity supply company has an energy advice line, but the association says the advice was poor overall and sometimes wrong. A spokeswoman said: 'Few British Gas regions and electricity companies even managed to send their energy advice leaflet.' She also said that some electricity companies were unwilling to advise over the telephone, even where they advertised a 24-hour helpline.

As part of a survey for Which? magazine, the association contacted companies for advice on draught proofing and insulation for elderly people on income support. Half the British Gas regions did not inform callers that grants are available to cover most of the cost. Among the electricity companies, only London, Seeboard and Yorkshire gave satisfactory advice.

A spokesman for British Gas said: 'A tremendous amount of good sound energy advice has been given to thousands of customers, but we accept some shortcomings. We are using the information from Which? together with our own research as part of a review of the whole service.'

The CA spokeswoman also attacked the performance of major stores and DIY centres in knowing how customers can cut bills. Most stores and showrooms did not know that it can be cheaper to wash up by hand than use a dishwasher. Only one DIY store in 30 visited provided adequate information on draught-proofing and loft or tank insulation.

The association has called for tougher regulation of the energy sector to ensure that staff are aware of the potential for energy savings, and pass the information on. Standards should be set by the watchdogs, Offer and Ofgas, but should be monitored by an independent body as well, it says.