20 November 2002

S1M-3486 Utilities (Mis-selling)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S1M-3486, in the name of Mr Duncan McNeil, on the mis-selling of utilities. The debate will be concluded without any question being put, and I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.
Motion debated,
That the Parliament notes the proposal of energy regulator, Ofgem, to penalise London Electricity for failing to prevent its sales staff from mis-selling products to customers; expresses concern over the high-pressure selling tactics employed by representatives of certain utility companies; believes that vulnerable members of the public are entitled to protection from such practices; seeks clarification over what safeguards are currently in place and how these are enforced, and considers that the industry, the Scottish Executive and all interested parties should undertake a concerted effort to put an end to underhand sales practices and restore public confidence in the utilities market.
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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate Duncan McNeil on securing the debate, which is timely. Anyone who is prepared to tackle ex-boilermaker Duncan McNeil on any subject—especially a subject that touches people, such as this one does—does so at their peril.
I will quote Ian Fleming, who, in one of the James Bond books, said:
"Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action."
I bring to you today a tale of enemy action. I had great difficulty in preparing for the debate, because I could select only a few of the cases from my considerable file on the subject in my constituency office.
I will start with St Fergus church hall. Unlike the cases that members have mentioned so far, this happened over the telephone. St Fergus is in a rural constituency. To send people to chap the doors there is expensive and more difficult, and most utilities sales are therefore done by telephone canvassing. A call to the hall-keeper of St Fergus church hall led her to ask for a quotation. The result was that Scottish Gas transferred the church hall from its Scottish Hydro-Electric supplier.
The second case is Mrs B—I will not give her full name—in Maud. She received a letter, again after a marketing telephone call, indicating that her electricity supply would be transferred from Scottish Hydro-Electric to Scottish Gas. After my intervention, she received a letter from Scottish Gas resolving the issue on 14 August. Seven days later, Scottish Gas transferred her again—this time without even the courtesy of a telephone call.
The administrative systems in some of the utility companies are under considerable stress. In some respects, that is because of the competition from new entrants in the market and the urgent, belated response from the sitting tenants, as we shall call them. Mrs B's case resulted in a reference to the board of Scottish Gas. It has gone to a very serious level.
However, it was time to play double or quits. My own constituency office received a phone call making an offer. My constituency office manager requested a quotation, and within two weeks Scottish Gas had transferred even an MSP's constituency office gas supply. That made The Press and Journal and certainly made Scottish Gas sit up and pay attention.
I have an 80-year-old constituent in Fraserburgh who has had his electricity supply transferred on two separate occasions to two separate companies. I have only dipped into the file to pick a few random examples that are geographically representative of my constituency. The problem affects real people and causes real irritation. It is not just salespeople chapping the door; it happens through the telephone as well.
I have written to Ofgem and had a reply. Ofgem points out that it is a condition that suppliers carry out audits of all their sales and that they record the telephone calls. I have heard the script of some of the cases concerned. Unambiguously, there was no question that transfers were not being made. The pressure on some of those involved in cases of mis-selling to personal and business customers is clearly unreasonable and untenable.
I will close with a final irony. Scottish Gas is fixing the problem—I am reasonably content about that—but, because my constituency is a rural area, many of my constituents whose electricity has been transferred to Scottish Gas cannot even receive gas from Scottish Gas. Is that not the final irony?

Stewart Stevenson
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