Tom Richmond: Would big business profit from responsibility?

TO what extent should large utility companies and supermarkets put social responsibility before the drive for profits in 2012?

It is a conundrum which gains added credence with Save the Children’s assertion that poor families are receiving insufficient help to heat their homes in this wind-swept winter.

It is not that the major energy suppliers are not helping the needy at all – they are providing around £1.1bn over four years, according to the Government – but that this contribution is proving to be woefully inadequate.

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There is also the issue of identifying who the Treasury and the energy firms should help. Pensioners already receive considerable assistance, largely because most spent a considerable proportion of each day at home.

Equally, it should be remembered that young children are vulnerable to the cold and that longstanding health ailments will only hinder their education, thus negating the chances of them making a full contribution to society during adulthood.

Yet the response from the so-called “Big Six” energy firms is that any further tax hike will reduce their profits – and lessen the scope for future investment.

And that, in short, was the same response from Tesco this week to questions about why the price of a pint of skimmed milk has now sneaked up to 49p in these parts – just a penny short of a symbolic 50p.

It says it gives its suppliers just over 30p per litre, marginally more than any arrangement with a processor.

A company statement added: “We always aim to offer our customers great value on everyday items, including milk, and we remain committed to ensuring our farmers receive a fair price.

“We offer them the best price in the industry, well above the current market value and significantly above what other supermarkets pay.”

Yet the question remains: can, and should, the energy suppliers and supermarkets be doing more when so many of their customers are on their uppers?

The public would say “yes”. The firms concerned would maintain “no”. And the politicians and regulators will obfuscate. Who is right?

IT’S not just the future quality of public services that will be a key issue in 2012. So, too, will be the future of the high street, as the retail industry pays a heavy price for the consumer slump.

Yet why do chains like WH Smith deserve the public’s support, when they offer such poor service and no longer have a clear focus on the stock that they sell?

Take the Leeds branch, which I needed to visit last week. I phoned to check the store’s closing time. “Don’t know,” came the reply. “Can you check?” I asked. After a delay, I was told 6pm.

I wondered whether it would be better to drop in on the way to work instead. “What time do you open?” “Any time between 8.45am and 9am, I think,” was the reply. Why, therefore, should we feel too much sympathy for the shops when they continue to take their customers for granted?

THE continued diminution of local services has been illustrated by libraries being relocated into children’s centres to save costs.

The downside? Sure Start children’s centres are now being cut back, as Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman set out in the House of Commons.

I’m afraid Culture Minister’s Ed Vaizey response was unconvincing when he said: “Co-locating a library service, whether with a children’s centre or other services, is very important.”

How important? Time will tell.

THERE are many reasons why people feel disenfranchised, not least the trend for MPs not to represent the community where they grew up.

And with Old Etonian David Cameron ensconced in Downing Street, David Skelton, deputy director of the Policy Exchange think-tank, warns of serious consequences.

“Politics today is notable for its absence of leaders and leading figures from working-class backgrounds,” he asserts.

“Working-class people are again being shut out from Parliament’s long corridors.”

Of course there are exceptions – Rotherham-born William Hague would conclude that he came from working class stock and had to move to middle class Richmond in North Yorkshire to pursue his political career and become Foreign Secretary.

But Skelton has a point – who is speaking up for the so-called “squeezed middle”?

CLASS should not be an issue when it comes to Ed Miliband, the leader of a Labour Party steeped in the trade union movement, but I get the impression he can’t win.

Asked what kind of prime minister Ed Miliband would make, Lord Healey, the former Labour Chancellor and longstanding Leeds MP, said: “I don’t think he will be exceptionally good.

“He lacks charisma, which is a great disadvantage in the age of television.”

Yet, when Tony Blair was PM, Healey – and other – repeatedly accused the election winner of putting style before substance.

Having then endured Gordon Brown, a man who could never be accused of putting style first, the Labour torch passed to Miliband – a well-meaning individual pitted against a Prime Minister whose style is moulded on Blair.

PARLIAMENT, you’ll be pleased to hear, finally resumes next Monday – almost a week after the rest of the country. But my recent dig did not go down well with Scarborough MP Robert Goodwill, who spent part of his Christmas Day answering a constituent’s query about bus services.

He added: “Don’t forget that we have instated September sittings, so that we do not have a three-month break in the summer. The way Christmas and New Year has fallen dictates the return time to some extent.”

Point taken – but I doubt voters will be sympathetic.