Gas customers pay the price

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THE very fact that British Gas owner Centrica went on a charm offensive for several days before announcing huge profits yesterday suggests that company executives were a little concerned that they might be accused of fleecing their domestic customers.

If so, they had good grounds. A £606m profit for British Gas’s residential arm only months after a steep rise in customer tariffs lays the company wide open to charges of profiteering; charges which will not go away no matter how many times it stresses the amount of tax it contributes to the Exchequer or the number of jobs it supports across the country.

British Gas may insist that there is no connection between the price rise and the 11 per cent increase in annual profits, but that is not what its customers will believe.

Like their counterparts at British Gas’s main rivals, they experience prices rising relentlessly – in line with the increase in wholesale gas prices, as the companies usually insist – but then see only modest falls, if any, when wholesale prices go down again.

Yet none of the big six energy companies can complain at the criticism they receive from domestic consumers when it is precisely because their pricing strategies are so opaque that their customers feel time and time again that the wool is being pulled over their eyes.

Indeed, this is why David Cameron has promised to bring transparency to the industry, with legislation that will force companies to put customers on the lowest possible tariffs and to make tariff structures and bills simpler and easier to understand.

It remains debatable, however, as to whether this will really bring about cheaper bills for customers.

Because successive governments have dithered for so long over formulating a coherent, long-term energy policy, Britain will become more and more dependent on gas over the next few years with householders increasingly at the mercy of the main suppliers.

Without greater competition in the market, therefore – something which the regulator, Ofgem, seems unable to enforce – consumers are likely to be paying the price for years to come.