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Friday, May 22, 1998 Published at 07:48 GMT 08:48 UK


Cooking with gas

Gas deregulation has cut prices for consumers

Three million gas customers in London and Surrey join the rest of country when gas competition finally goes nationwide this weekend.

Already 4m consumers have switched suppliers since competition began two years ago in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset.

According to the gas regulator, Ofgas, Britain is the first country in the world to have a completely deregulated gas market.

But the process has been dogged by complaints about high-pressure sales tactics, while some of the competitors to British Gas have complained that the company is still exploiting its monopoly position.

About 20 gas suppliers now compete with British Gas, offering discounts of up to 17% on gas bills. They have gained 25% of the market, compared with only 12% for competitors to BT in the deregulated domestic telephone market.

[ image: Gas regulator Claire Spottiswoode faces criticism]
Gas regulator Claire Spottiswoode faces criticism
But Neil Lambert, sales director of Calortex, said BG was trying to "halt competition" in its tracks and called on the regulator, Claire Spottiswoode, not to rest until at least 50% of customers used an alternative supplier.

Companies like Calortex have found it expensive to win new customers by doorstep selling, and its American partner Texaco is considering selling its stake.

But many consumers have complained of high pressure sales tactics. There have been complaints that customers were tricked into signing contracts with the new companies when they thought they were only requesting information.

In response to these problems, Ofgas has introduced a code of conduct and a cooling-off period for customers. British Gas says 140,000 households have returned after switching temporarily to other suppliers.

And BG is fighting back by entering the market for electricity, where competition is due to begin in September. The company is already signing up customers for its "dual fuel" deal offering up to 13% savings for those who buy both gas and electricity together.

It all should add up to more good news for consumers.

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