What a gas!

Anyone who still thinks the privatisation of utilities was a good thing needs their head examined. When I moved back to London some three years ago, I elected to take both gas and electricity from British Gas. Sometime later, must have been when new neighbours moved in upstairs, EDF came along and somehow took over my gas account without asking. At first I didn’t realise. When I did, it took a good deal of effort to get it corrected (including writing to my MP).

First lesson: this could not have happened before privatisation, in other words, before there were different companies competing for a share of the same infrastructure. This is so obvious that my neighbour, whose politics are not the same as mine, readily agrees. As for EDF, who knows whether their taking over the supply without authorisation was the result of an error or of sharp practices, as one of the EDF telephone help line supervisors admitted to me might have been the case.

But wait, there’s more. British Gas sent someone round to check the meters. At this point I realised that the people who visit your doorstep are not employed by British Gas itself, but by a subcontractor—another result of privatisation, and as it turns out, potential recipe for confusion. Anyway, the fellow examined the meters, and discovered, first, that one of them wasn’t working, and second, that it looked as if they were reversed—the meter marked Ground Floor was connected to the First Floor and vice versa. But this could only be sorted out by taking down the serial numbers, and then my upstairs neighbour had to call the supplier himself, because British Gas said they couldn’t take instructions for another supply that was in someone else’s name. Seems reasonable, but at this point one realises that the results of privatised suppliers is fragmentation of the service.

Worse still, when the subcontractor summoned in consequence of my neighbour’s call came round—needless to say, he belonged to another company again—he discovered, upon installing a new meter to replace the broken one, that the previous fellow had been mistaken, and the meters were incorrectly labelled but correctly attached. Since he had no authorisation to replace a broken meter for a different account, he put the broken one back, so at least I still had a gas supply. Now you learn that living in the privatised world is like Alice in Wonderland. And remember, all these visits by subcontracted doorstep engineers are costing money, most of it to pay for what turns out to be unproductive work. (Not mention to expense of maintaining telephone helpline operators who are unable to sort out the confusion.)

Anyway, more phone calls to the helpline, and still without resolution, even after one call that lasted a whole hour. What happens is that every time you call or get passed on to someone else, you have to repeat the whole story. Either the necessary information isn’t on their computer database, or it’s far too complicated for them to understand, or their control systems are fragmented so they have to speak to someone else and you get put on hold (where you’re plagued with some aweful noise that passes for music). So you ask if you can do this by email and the supervisor says, well, you can send him an email but he can’t reply—he’s not allowed to use his email for responding to customers. Incredible! And he couldn’t even give me any other point of email contact.

Perhaps another round of letters—to British Gas’s PO Box, my MP again, and the Energy Ombudsman—will bring results. Meanwhile, my political prejudices are fully confirmed by my actual experience: not only that the Thatcherite creed of privatisation of existing infrastructure for public utilities (as we called them) was a scam, but that far from serving the customer better, the process produces greater inefficiency than was ever seen previously. And a waste of human time and resources which only alienates both customer and worker.

Capitalists were once more intelligent. Back in the 1860s, when anarchic competition between the different private telegraph networks led to chaos, the British government decided to act, and empowered the Post Office to take over the entire telegraph system. Carried out under the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, it was the first act of nationalisation.


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