Damage limitation was the order of the day at Centrica on Monday, but the British Gas parent parent company knows its public image has been hammered once again on the back of its latest trading update. The company enjoyed a massive boost to profits thanks to the brutal weather across Britain this winter, and Centrica's PR machine went into overdrive to limit the fallout from accusations of profiteering at the expense of vulnerable consumers.
The company promised to use the profits gleaned from their bumper trading period to prevent further retail price rises "for as long as possible", but critics were quick to read between the lines. One energy analyst accused Centrica of "extorting" customers who are "held over a barrel" during the winter period when they need energy most, and "offering a mere fig-leaf in return" by way of their vague promise to try and keep future prices down.
"They can get out of that pledge in an instant", the analyst noted. "This smacks of damage-limitation of the most cynical variety", adding that such superficial statements do not deserve to allay the condemnation aimed at the company for its treatment of customers. And the criticism of Centrica has been coming thick and fast of late, not least outside the Centrica AGM in Westminster this afternoon, where demonstrators from Fuel Poverty Action made their presence keenly felt to shareholders.
Highlighting the shocking statistic that an estimated 7,200 Britons died as a direct result of fuel poverty over the course of last winter, Fuel Poverty Action activists held placards for photocalls and distributed leaflets to shareholders lining up to enter the AGM. Inevitably, the protest attracted the attention of security guards and police officers, who tried in vain to move the demonstrators off centre stage, but the message came through loud and clear to shareholders and media alike that campaigners were not content to let Centrica off easily.
Many shareholders appeared sympathetic to the protesters' cause, although as one elderly lady put it "there's always protesters at every AGM I go to, I don't know what it is they're trying to achieve - I don't read their leaflets". However, once a flyer was thrust into her hand and she read the damning statistics, she softened somewhat. "Oh yes, deaths from the cold - well we've definitely got to do something about that", she said sternly, before adding "but I don't think my vote on its own is worth all that much, you'd need thousands to vote out the directors".
While her initial apathy and subsequent realisation of her powerlessness summed up the wider challenges of trying to call market behemoths like Centrica to account, the campaigners weren't deterred in their quest, rightly pointing out the inordinate media attention they'd garnered relative to their number. The activism also spread inside the venue as members of the group holding proxy votes took their questions to the Centrica board, causing a series of awkward moments for those tasked with providing a response, including having to deny outright that the company are implicated in the scandal over alleged gas-price rigging in the wholesale market.
While Centrica's P+L account is in rude health, the company is well aware that they are falling even further out of favour with their customers, and the public at large, as a direct result of the vast profits being made and huge bonuses handed out to top brass. How much they care about the opprobrium is another matter, however - especially with the toothless regulator Ofgem doing next to nothing to protect consumers. Until both Ofgem's and Centrica's action matches their words, no amount of weak promises to try to keep prices down while profits keep soaring will appease anyone but Centrica shareholders, and 7,200 unnecessary deaths from fuel poverty speak louder than any length of price-freeze ever could.