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Big Six Bandit Country

03/04/2013 12:59 | Updated 02 June 2013

News that one of the major UK energy suppliers has been conning customers for years will come as little surprise to the British public. Nor, sadly, will the paltry fine levied against the offending party by Ofgem, the lame-duck regulator tasked with overseeing the domestic energy market.

For a company so egregiously engaged in deception on a mammoth scale, SSE have got off almost scot-free in financial terms, and they and their peers know it. Ofgem levied a penalty equivalent to just 0.5% of SSE's annual revenues, demonstrating again quite how toothless and ineffectual the regulator remains, despite all its protestations to be championing the cause for consumers around the clock.

Decrying SSE's behaviour as a 'woeful catalogue of failures', Ofgem declared its outrage at the 'culture of mis-selling' that allowed SSE staff to persist in their wanton ways for a 'prolonged and extensive' period. Yet when it came to taking punitive action, the regulator shied away from delivering anything more than a slap on the wrist - doing almost no damage to SSE's bottom line, and more importantly sending an alarming message of laissez-faire to other current or would-be offenders.

Ofgem is already under heavy fire for its lacklustre and protracted approach to its ongoing inquiries, recently admitting that it has ten outstanding investigations against major energy firms, some dating back as far as two and a half years. In such a climate of inaction, critics claim power companies swagger through the markets with a senses of impunity, safe in the knowledge that even in the worst case scenario any punishment for their misdeeds will barely make a dent in their balance sheets.

My own experience of Ofgem is just as worrying, with their response to my allegations of price-fixing in the wholesale gas market falling far short of what should be expected from a fit and proper regulator. Despite being tipped-off about potential market manipulation as early as 17 October, Ofgem took no action until my evidence was handed to the FSA and national press almost a month later - and their subsequent investigations have been just as sub-standard.

Despite having a raft of vital evidence in his possession, one of the key whistleblowers has still not been interviewed, almost six months after Ofgem were made aware of the claims, while my own meetings with Ofgem investigators revealed a stark lack of comprehension of the machinations of the very markets they are tasked with overseeing. Ofgem have sought to pass the buck by claiming the EU has arrogated their powers to regulate, but even in areas where they are fully in control, they fail time and again to properly protect vulnerable consumers.

The lack of action in the case of the wholesale markets speaks volumes about its intentions to fully delve to the bottom of the affair, and adds yet more weight to Labour's calls to disband the regulator and replace it with a properly-empowered, fit-for-purpose successor. Today's pathetic response to such a blatant abuse of trust and power by SSE demonstrates even further that far from being a fierce and valiant defender of consumer rights, Ofgem is at best a paper tiger, and at worst a figleaf regulator designed to protect big business at all costs.

Adding insult to injury, SSE's slick PR response to today's bad press reveals the fangs lurking at the corners of the fixed smiles of their besuited spokesmen. Under the faux-contrite banner 'Sorry isn't good enough', their video is a masterclass in how many euphemisms for 'daylight robbery' can be packed into a two-minute clip without ever calling a spade a spade. For a company caught bang to rights and apparently desperate to make amends, their reaction has been nothing short of mocking so far - and, with Ofgem firmly in the energy companies' pockets, who can blame the likes of SSE for such a cavalier attitude?

As witnessed with last winter's across-the-board price hikes, and again with Centrica's soaring profit announcement in February, the public is baying for Big Six blood now more than ever, and seems increasingly justified in doing so. Today's exposure of SSE's malpractice will only add further fuel to the fire, and Ofgem's shockingly inadequate response will fan the flames even higher. Consumers deserve better protection, and fast. Instead, the only protection offered is to the bosses of out-of-control energy companies riding roughshod over any sense of morality or justice.