Electricity firm aimed to recruit 'chancers' for doorstep selling

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Southern Electric, one of the country's biggest energy operators with six million customers, accepted that press adverts aimed at attracting beer-swilling, trouble-causing men were "inappropriate".

A series of job advertisements was placed in TNT magazine earlier this year aimed at recruiting South Africans and Australians who were unfaithful to their girlfriends and would work with other "chancers".

One advert was headed: "Troublemakers at school required." The copy asked: "Have you always hated paperwork but got on and got it out of the way anyway?

"Is there occasionally blood in your beerstream? "Have you several girlfriends on the go at the same time? And if you call one by the other's name accidentally does it add to the fun?

"You're trouble and you know it - we reckon you can do this job."

Anyone answering in the affirmative was called Dangerman and asked to phone for a job. Another advert inquired whether readers had ever used the line: "Suffer baby, suffer." It explained: "The work's hard. The colleagues are chancers, just like you, who love life and like having a laugh."

A multiple choice test in a third advert rewarded job-seekers whose favourite drink was beer, who would be playing rugby and drinking on a Saturday and who would be recovering from a hangover on Sunday.

Controversy about the adverts comes amid fears that aggressive doorstep sales techniques are being used to persuade homeowners to switch gas and electricity supply after steep price rises this year.

Among the claims are that companies are targeting vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled.

The adverts were placed by Universal Group, a sales company whose employees work for Scottish and Southern Electric cold-calling homes across the country.

Tonight, the BBC's Watchdog programme will screen secretly filmed footage of some of the tactics used by salesmen for Southern Electric.

Cold-calling salesmen allegedly carried a torch to make it look like they were there to read a meter. But once in the home, it is claimed they would apply high-pressure techniques to persuade people to switch their supply.

Some of the salesmen were totally dependent on commission, raising the pressure to make a deal.

Police have become concerned at the behaviour of Southern Electric's doorstep team. Sgt Jim Sharpe, of Sussex Police, said: "We've had a considerable number of complaints about the way in which Southern Electric have been conducting themselves. They wouldn't leave, they were very aggressive in the way in which they spoke to people, they were very persistent." Some members of the public who called police to complain "couldn't believe" that the salesmen represented a genuine company, he added.

Southern Electric said it had sacked two salesmen as a result of the BBC's investigation. But it insisted it had a good record on doorstep selling. A spokesman for the Scottish and Southern Energy Group, which also includes the energy brands Scottish Hydro Electric and Swalec, said: "We are the leaders in terms of customer service and doorstep selling practice." He claimed that figures from Energywatch, the industry watchdog,supported its record.

A spokesman for Energywatch rejected the claim and said the company was considered to be one of the worst for inappropriate doorstep selling. "Complaints and inquiries to Energywatch are proportionately double what you would expect of a company the size of Scottish and Southern Energy," the spokesman said. "I have talked personally to consumers who have been deeply upset by the manner and approach."