§ Mr. Merchant
To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what progress has been made in the investigation into whether British Gas should retain its charter mark. 
§ Mr. David Hunt
Following the approach from the Gas Consumers Council on 18 January, I have now agreed with British Gas and the council a programme of action so that British Gas can retain its charter mark award by demonstrably continuing to meet tough criteria which the charter mark scheme sets down.
In its submission, the Gas Consumers Council expressed faith in British Gas as a company and made it clear that British Gas should retain its charter mark provided it could get its performance back on track. Its main concern was a rise in complaints in the following areas:
- account queries (a 27 per cent. increase over 1993);
- service and repairs (a 9 per cent. increase over 1993);
- staff manner (up 12 per cent. on 1993); and
- lack of reply to correspondence and non-answering of telephones (up 18 per cent. on 1993).
British Gas has assured me that its aim is to re-establish its reputation for excellence as quickly as possible and that its new structure will ultimately enable it to be more responsive to customers. It is determined to provide the highest service among gas suppliers.165W
However, British Gas accepts that the process of reorganisation has meant that it has not always been able to maintain its previous level of performance, despite which it has continued to meet or exceed all but three of its 39 regulated standards of service.
The agreed programme of action needed to pass the charter mark test consists of the following main elements:increased training for staff dealing directly with customers and a project to address customer contact across the company's different business units to ensure that misdirected queries/complaints are handled effectively;front-line staff will be empowered to make amends to dissatisfied customers;additional telephone lines have been set up to ensure that telephone answering meets the targets of 90 per cent. of calls being answered in 30 seconds or less;increased staffing and weekend working to clear the backlog of correspondence and telephone inquiries and to ensure that the target of replying to 90 per cent. of correspondence within five days is met;a leaflet to all customers outlining the recent changes in the structure of British Gas and details of contacts for further information;market research to identify core customer requirements, with each business unit developing its own standards for the start of 1996;a freephone number to enable customers to find out the location of their nearest payment or prepayment token outlet;a national quality audit to ensure that the company's service work, including work carried out by contractors, is of the highest quality;each business unit to develop new IT systems, or enhance existing ones, to improve the quality of information available to those dealing with inquiries/complaints; andstaff focus groups will monitor standards of service on a regular basis and identify and share best practice.
We have agreed with British Gas and the Gas Consumers Council that we will review progress and the position on British Gas's charter mark at the end of the year.
I believe that this very positive programme shows the real value of the charter mark scheme as a reward for excellence—the charter mark means business.