THE bills are bad enough, the insult to the intelligence might just be worse.
To watch the mouthpieces of the big six energy companies before a parliamentary select committee last week was to watch men imbued with the conviction that their audience, MPs not least, were idiots.
It resembled a surreal parlour game. You didn't care for that excuse? Try another. We could blame green levies. We could blame investment in infrastructure. We could - and certainly will - blame the global wholesale prices that are somehow beyond the control of firms embedded in every part of the energy production and supply chain.
What a good mouthpiece cannot do is mention the quest for profits. The ingenuity does not exist to allow anyone to condemn terrible cost burdens while explaining away a 73% collective profit increase in the three years to 2012. In that year, the six together cleared £4.6 billion. Centrica alone paid 75% of its share, £816 million, in dividends. According to the TUC, in the decade up to this September energy costs went up by 152%. General inflation rose by 38%.
A mouthpiece is liable to trip over his tongue, meanwhile, when one of the smaller players in his industry decides that the cat is better off out of the bag. Stephen Fitzpatrick, managing director of Ovo Energy, asserts bluntly that wholesale prices have not risen significantly in a couple of years. Late in the day, the industry regulator, Ofgem, reports that those prices have gone up by 1.7% in a year while customer bills are being increased by 8%, 10% and more.
Appearing before the select committee on Tuesday, Fitzpatrick also accused the big six of suppressing competition through predatory pricing. Loyalty to familiar companies, he said, was costing customers money thanks to inflated tariffs. Loyalists get none of the deals granted even to those who threaten to switch suppliers. This observer was not convinced that real competition exists between those who dominate his industry.
That, of itself, is no surprise. Britain's energy industry was carved up for privatisation in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a manner that was never going to enhance competition. Since then, the bulk of the energy business has been absorbed by firms from foreign countries that are very interested in profitability, but with little inclination to encourage truly British rivals. If your taste runs to irony one of the biggest players in these islands is EDF, a company 87%-owned by the French state.
Ofgem insists, as do the companies, that there is no evidence to suggest that a cartel is at work when prices rise, magically, in concert. On the other hand, you could hardly accuse firms which control 98% of the British market of indulging in the cut-throat price wars that are supposed to be capitalism's glory. You could not say that they disagree on the reasons for increases that vastly outstrip inflation. It's simple enough. When there is no real competition there is no need for anything as vulgar as a conspiracy.
What these foreign-owned giants have on their hands is close to ideal: a natural monopoly, captive markets and a political class so in thrall to ideology that it struggles to respond in the face of public outrage. Labour has managed to get to the point of calling the energy market "dysfunctional". The Coalition, the Tories above all, cannot even imagine such a thing. Instead, they urge greater competition. In a truly free market, that's supposed to happen spontaneously.
The rest of us need power in order to live normal lives. Some of us need it just to stay alive. Each defence of profit levels by the big six, however opaque, contains precious few mentions of fuel poverty and its lethal effect on those terrified by a 9% increase on bills that have risen relentlessly. The big six take their £4.6bn for "investment" and distribution among shareholders. Last year, the World Health Organisation calculated that 30% of winter deaths in Europe were attributable to cold homes. In Britain, that would equate to roughly 8000 lost lives.
A utility is not a profit vehicle like any other. Why should it be allowed to exist as such? A competent government could do a lot about fuel poverty with £4.6bn. It could do something for the rest of a population struggling with falling wages and, for many, rent increases across the UK of 11% in the last year alone while the Coalition hacked away at social security. Instead, David Cameron offers an inquiry into the energy market.
In one sense, you can't blame the big six. They are behaving as good capitalists should. Their first duty is to their owners, the shareholders. If they can get away with their huge price rises by bamboozling politicians devoted to the myth of free markets, they would be stupid to do anything else. If profits falter the share price falters and the company, says this little bit of business lore, is damaged.
Whatever happens, these executives will not be asked the questions deemed unthinkable by all mainstream politicians. What is a fair profit in an enterprise on which lives depend? How much should anyone be entitled to extract from an essential public service? And why should a private concern with no interest in the public good be acceptable?
Ed Miliband talks of a 20-month price freeze. This will leave the companies with a public relations problem as they try to work out how to recover their "lost" profits before and after the event. For a while, the timing of a few more unfeasible price rises will be tricky. But the party leader's promise of a post-election gesture leaves Labour with a problem, too.
Miliband's idea is to freeze prices while he reforms a dysfunctional market. That achieved, he would presumably leave the companies to get back to business. But why go through all that? Why not simply introduce price controls for enterprises whose taste for piracy is now obvious? Miliband only has to say what is true. The energy supply is too important to be left to those devoted to maximising profits for foreign owners.
The mouthpieces of the executives in question failed to impress MPs last week. Bare-faced cheek might have had something to do with it. To every threadbare answer the politicians present reacted first with incredulity, then anger. Later, Miliband accused the firms of providing nothing more than "a list of excuses". But behind it all, there was the familiar feeling that elected representatives were dealing with people who truly do not care.
There are plenty of those around. Voters began to wake up when they first understood the real "culture" of banking. Now they are coming to terms with another truth. Corporate Britain's confidence comes from an implied challenge to politicians and public alike: what are you going to do about it? The answer, again and again, is "nothing much". Power has shifted decisively in these islands. Democratic control is a myth.
In the happy dreams of late capitalism, this should never be mistaken for a matter of life and death. This time, though, that's exactly what it is. The pirates have charge of the ship of state.
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