The notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity may be highly dubious, but the UK's energy companies appear to live by it.
Having been in the headlines for days because of their annual round of eye-popping prices rises, one, ScottishPower, has now been ordered to pay £8.5 million to customers after misleading people during doorstep and telephone sales approaches.
There is a distinct sense of deja vu about the penalty: in April, SSE was fined £10.5m over mis-selling of gas and electricity, in 2011 British Gas and npower were fined millions over the way they dealt with customer complaints and Ofgem investigations into sales by npower and E.ON are still going on - all at a time when there is public anger over those inflation-busting prices hikes. From a public relations perspective, it does not get much worse than this, yet if the companies are bothered, they hide it well. Holding down energy prices might be a way to win back some public approval, but there is no sign any of the companies will do so, not even ScottishPower.
Speaking yesterday, the company's chief executive Neil Clitheroe, in comments any media trainer would be proud of, solemnly apologised and explained in a suitably contrite tone that the way the company had estimated its annual charges and how they compared to other tariffs on the market, had been done "incorrectly" (good word, though Ofgem preferred "misleading"). He stressed that the company no longer engaged in doorstep sales. In spite of the public rebuke the company has received, though, he revealed that ScottishPower would still be putting up prices at some point this year, insisting it was "a highly competitive market" . Plus ça change. One way or another, the customer ends up feeling as put-upon as ever.
All this only adds to the public's impression that the energy companies are "at it". British Gas, npower and SSE have all announced price rises ranging from 8.2% to 10.4% this month and the others are bound to follow suit. Energy prices in the UK may be lower than those in many other EU countries, but that does not soothe the sting. For all that Mr Clitheroe justifies price rises by pointing to the competitive marketplace, along with the cost of infrastructure investment, the truth is that the big six companies dominate that very market themselves and most are in turn owned by large international energy companies. Blaming the market when they are the market is an empty excuse.
The spectacle of yet another energy company apologising for yet another breach of the regulations, raises the question of whether the regulatory regime is working. Apologies are nowhere near enough. Even the £8.5m financial penalty, which sounds daunting, is actually a bee sting in the hide of an elephant. It represents a mere 1.2% of ScottishPower's £712m pretax profit for 2012, equivalent to half a week. It is time to look at what stronger sanctions could be brought in.
There is such a thing as bad publicity but, where that has no impact, tougher regulation can certainly help.
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