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Big Six Backlash Boiling Over

17/04/2013 17:41 | Updated 17 June 2013

The heat is on energy companies now more than ever, with public anger stoked by near-weekly revelations of egregious behaviour by Big Six firms and their peers. Tuesday's Energy and Climate Change committee grilling of power providers was an eye-opening spectacle, ramming home the extent to which hostility has mounted towards the energy industry - but transforming harsh words into decisive action will prove a far harder task.

Ever since the Thatcher-led sell-off of state assets including the gas network, warnings have been sounded of abusive behaviour by dominant energy players, yet to date there has been no more than a token attempt to crack down on their misdeeds. The recent £10.5m penalty imposed by Ofgem on SSE for endemic misselling to its customers was trumpeted as a 'record fine' by the regulator, but was swiftly condemned by politicians and analysts for its inefficacy, given the gargantuan scale of SSE's revenues and profits.

The exposure of SSE's malpractice came hot on the heels of Centrica's soaring profits and bonus payouts to top brass, which were roundly criticised across the political spectrum given this winter's crippling price hikes levied on consumers, driving yet more energy users into fuel poverty.

In a desperate attempt to promote itself as the consumers' champion, Ofgem rushed out a report into the Big Six's profit margins, yet were forced to admit their own deficiencies in analysing the firms' figures, stating that "unless the companies are re-regulated... complete transparency is not possible".

On the back of the Ofgem report, shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint accused the regulator of "let[ting] the energy companies get away with ripping people off", adding that "these figures show once and for all... that energy companies have increased their profits on the back of spiralling bills for hard-pressed consumers". Labour has promised to scrap Ofgem and replace it with a far tougher body if they return to power, a pledge which is music to the ears of voters at a time when the public feels helpless in the face of rampant profiteering by energy companies.

Yet the criticism of the gas and electricity markets does not just come from consumers, with major energy players themselves recently calling for an overhaul of the way the wholesale energy market is priced. Statoil, the Norwegian state energy producer, joined British Gas owner Centrica and Npower's parent company RWE in demanding significant changes to the incumbent system of price assessments in the gas market, warning of potential for 'gaming' and 'manipulation' under the current regime.

Their concerns echo the evidence of alleged gas price-fixing I handed to the FSA and Ofgem in November 2012, which sparked investigations by both of the regulators, as well as an urgent parliamentary debate into the matter. Six months later, the investigations are still ongoing and shrouded in secrecy, with no word of update to a press and public growing increasingly sceptical that the inquiries are being taken anywhere near as seriously as they should.

Instead, observers accuse Ofgem of seeking to delay their findings as long as possible, given the shockwaves that would spread through the market and beyond should the full details of the alleged price manipulation be exposed to public scrutiny. Any confirmation that the wholesale market has been rigged to benefit individual traders or energy companies would deal a hammer blow to an industry already reeling from repeated revelations about wide-scale deception and exploitation of customers at retail level.

At Tuesday's committee hearing, MP Tim Yeo launched a blistering attack on the UK's energy providers, stating "I don't think [these companies] grasp the extent of public disgust towards them". However, the truth is even worse than he suggests; the Big Six know full well the contempt in which they are held by the public, and couldn't care less, so long as they continue to be given free rein by a supine regulator who is neither willing nor able to effectively call them to account. From the wellhead and subsea pipelines to the homes and businesses of Britain's energy consumers, the system looks seriously broke, but there seems to be no one with the power to properly fix it.