AS befits a major multi-national, Centrica has many divisions and subsidiaries.
Scottish Gas, for one example, is little more than a minor brand within the international empire. Centrica Energy is another matter.
By its own boast, this division does it all for those customers who need to keep the lights on. As its literature goes, "we are an international business operating in the UK, Europe, North America and Trinidad and Tobago, delivering a balanced mix of gas and oil production, power generation and energy trading".
The advertising shout-lines are still more forthright. As the people at Centrica Energy would have it, "we source it; we generate it; we process it; we store it; we trade it; we save it; we supply it; we service it". In other words, it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify a single part of the energy supply chain in which the company is not active.
It makes Centrica a major player, as they say, the biggest supplier of domestic gas in these islands and a company that reported half-year profits of £1.58bn, a 9% increase. The conglomerate's ubiquity across the energy industry also makes a nonsense of the claim that "the global market" is a kind of supernatural force beyond its control. Centrica is one of the firms that makes and shapes that market.
The company is not inhibited in the slightest by that fact, however, when it comes to announcing average British/Scottish Gas domestic price rises of 10.4% for electricity and 8.4% for gas, despite a promise to hold bills down after hitting the jackpot last winter. Ian Peters, managing director of British Gas Residential Energy, parent to the "Scottish" brand, was quick off the mark. Higher wholesale gas costs were to blame, he said, as though the Centrica Energy octopus laid not a tentacle on those.
Mr Peters also specified transport and distribution costs, both of which might have something to do with fuel prices, and the Government's energy company obligation (ECO) for home insulation work. This last has become a favourite among the big six energy utilities as they seek to justify price rises announced or pending. Bills that vastly outstrip inflation are due to a mania for all things green, it seems. Those who trade in carbon fuels are unhappy with "decarbonisation", amazingly enough.
But they would like you, the customer, to blame the politicians rather than a company that pays out better than average dividends from multi-billion profits. On this telling, the ECO is as much of a burden on you as it is on Centrica. Amid the outrage directed at British/Scottish Gas after the price rise announcement, the line has gained credibility, particularly on television news. A pity, then, that the relevant minister has all but accused Centrica's subsidiary of fiddling its figures.
Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat who has to rebut Labour's political assault on energy costs, said this week that he had written to the energy firms and asked them to publish their ECO costs. Commenting on the price rises, Mr Davey said: "Today's announcement shows why that is necessary, because British Gas ECO numbers just don't add up when you look at what other energy companies are saying about their costs."
That's a serious charge, you might have thought. On the one hand, the old excuse of "market conditions" is flimsy when it comes from a firm that daily makes the market. On the other, the claim that the ECO is partly to blame for a thumping average 9.2% price rise had better be right if Centrica is to have even one leg to stand on. Mr Davey says, in effect, that it's nonsense. ECO will cost: no-one denies it. But if the obligation does not justify the bills, what follows?
Ed Miliband promises that if Labour is elected to government in 2015 he will freeze prices until 2017. During that period, he asserts, something - though it's not clear what - will be done to sort out a "dysfunctional" energy market that has seen consumers "ripped off" repeatedly. If Labour's poll ratings are any guide, voters remain sceptical, but the Coalition has yet to manage any sort of riposte.
Mr Davey in particular has placed himself in a position that looks barely tenable. On the one hand, he all but accuses Centrica of employing funny numbers. On the other hand, he was still insisting in the Commons this week that competition is working, that consumers should switch to one of the few, tiny rivals to the big six. But if the Minister has a plan for dealing with the giants, he is keeping it to himself.
Labour hesitates, meanwhile, over the idea that prices should be fully regulated. That would be interference in the market and that would never do, despite Mr Miliband's proclaimed belief that the market just isn't working. Recently he has talked, indeed, as though the very idea is a joke. Customers contemplating their bills this winter might find it hard to disagree.
Ofgem, the regulator, has investigated and concluded that there is no cartel operating among the big six. That's probably a statement of the obvious. Why would the companies need to engage in a conspiracy when they understand one another so well, when price competition is a farce and the threat of political action minimal? If they stick to the same lines - and they do - blaming the world at large and environmentalism at home, the need to compete recedes.
It might be that the difference between profits and profiteering is hard to spot. "Investment" and a "fair return for shareholders" are concepts as nebulous as you like. But in a country beset by falling living standards, one in which fuel poverty remains a daily reality, the bills are all too real. People would once riot over the price of bread. Now they take to Twitter, in their thousands, to curse British Gas and its tall tales. The issue is becoming, as the politicians would say, toxic.
They need to rouse themselves from their ideological stupor. The theoretical glories of the free market are all well and good, no doubt. The lived experience in modern Britain, time and again, is that big companies will exploit the liberties afforded by market dogma something rotten. In the process, they will make a mockery of the very idea of markets.
Mr Miliband, in part to his credit, recognises some of this. What do you do with a market dominated by a few giant, mutually supportive firms who refuse to mend their ways and rip off captive consumers time and again? If all the fine talk of "switching" becomes nonsensical, if all the angry words don't work, if pricing has left the realm of reason, surely you set aside dogma. In Britain's energy business, cherished theories of the market have failed utterly.
Don't hold your breath in the hope of full price regulation. One explanation for political paralysis while customers are taken to the cleaners, after all, is better than plausible. Corporate Britain is now at least as powerful as any government. It can and does face down ministers. It can and does run rings around the "watchdogs". And we are all paying the price for that.
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